Henriette Pleiger, Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn and University of Manchester
This Insight looks at the temporary exhibition “We Capitalists. From Zero to Turbo” at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Germany, which was opened on 12 March 2020 and closed again two days later. The experience of lockdown was also sadly felt as a loss of voice, especially as the exhibition had the potential to serve as a meaningful commentary to aspects of the evolving COVID-19 crisis. This period of speechlessness clearly exemplified how exhibitions can or cannot be active, bringing the medium of the exhibition to its limits.
The temporary exhibition We Capitalists. From Zero to Turbo at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Germany, was opened on 12 March 2020 and locked down again two days later on 14 March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The exhibition, curated by Wolfger Stumpfe and myself, stayed shut for almost two months before reopening on 12 May 2020 under a strict routine of safety measures to protect visitors and employees from a COVID-19 infection. Thankfully, the more than 70 international lenders to this exhibition all approved of extending the exhibition period from its original closing date of 12 July to 30 August 2020, thus enabling the institution to almost compensate for the weeks of lockdown. With such a comparatively very mild outcome, it feels almost presumptuous to write about the painful effects lockdown had on the exhibition’s curatorial and educational team. But the fact that the exhibition was ‘muted’ for two months made us more aware and appreciative of the multiple ways in which the exhibition might have been able to talk during this period of closure.
The multidisciplinary exhibition We Capitalists encircled the seemingly abstract topic of capitalism from a mainly cultural historical perspective using a wide array of objects from art, history, ethnography, science and everyday life. But the exhibition concept deliberately resisted presenting a supposed chronology in the historical development of capitalism and was instead narrated along fourteen chapters introducing the fundamental characteristics of the system such as rationalism, individualism, accumulation, growth, and acceleration, just to name a few. During the conceptualising process we started to compare this investigation of capitalism by its characteristic components to a DNA analysis in order to reveal the internal structure of the system. At the same time we came to feel that the ‘DNA of capitalism’ has long since entered our own DNA, our own identities, with capitalism being far more than just an economic system. Capitalism as a social order has shaped our thinking, perception and existence for centuries. The exhibition itself and the Capitalism Game – a digital game integrated in the exhibition (developed in cooperation with the German Federal Agency for Civic Education and Playersjourney UG of gamelab.berlin) – invited visitors to explore and experience their own position within the system of capitalism – a structural phenomenon which has entered every corner of our daily lives.
The opening of the exhibition on 12 March 2020 was special in many ways. In the days before the event, we had been struggling with coronavirus news and updates pouring in – the public and institutional safety regulations becoming stricter almost by the hour. While several colleagues and I were still absorbed in finishing the installation of the exhibition on time, opening guests were cancelling their attendance or contacting us with worried questions about the planned get-together. Finally, the institution decided to stick with the planned opening but on a significantly reduced scale. The exhibition was opened without a public ceremony of speeches during which potentially hundreds of people would have had to sit side by side in the Bundeskunsthalle’s auditorium without being able to physically distance themselves. We only opened the doors to the exhibition space to journalists in the morning and to the comparatively few opening guests in the evening of 12 March 2020. However, on the opening night, we still celebrated in a small group of colleagues, contributors and lenders. Our feelings on that evening were mixed indeed. We had fears of a looming danger, and we were constantly asking ourselves, whether holding even this comparatively small ceremony, and opening the exhibition at all, was a terrible mistake that might lead to a catastrophic situation. At the same time, we were full of euphoria that night and it was hard to restrain our happiness about the finished exhibition, although expressing happiness didn’t seem to be an appropriate attitude given the crisis rapidly unfolding around us.
In the days after the opening and subsequent closure of the exhibition, a leaden sadness sunk in. How on earth were we to live up to fast emerging online hashtags such as #ClosedButActive and #MuseumFromHome? The initial media response during the first few days after the opening had been positive, and the press recognized the exhibition’s relevance – and its remarkable timeliness. At the exhibition entrance we were prominently citing Mark Fisher with this famous line after Fredric Jameson: ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’ (Fisher 2009, p. 2). To our great astonishment, the ‘end of capitalism’ – or at least a considerable hiatus – just seemed to be happening: capitalism, in many of its aspects that are affecting our daily lives, seemingly came to a halt, a fact that also caused and still causes a huge amount of anxiety and existential fear. Probably a bit too idealistic, Bruno Latour wrote on 30 March 2020: “The first lesson the coronavirus has taught us, is also the most astounding: we have actually proven that it is possible, in a few weeks, to put an economic system on hold everywhere in the world” (here quoted in English from an interview with Bruno Latour by Jonathan Watts in The Guardian, accessed 6 June 2020, citing Latour’s article Imaginer les gestes-barrières contre le retour à la production d’avant-crise for AOS (Analyse Opinion Critique) dated 30 March 2020. The exhibition We Capitalists suddenly became a relevant commentary to the daily news, more relevant perhaps than it would have become without the COVID-19 crisis. At first, this – under different circumstances absolutely welcome – gain of significance caused a surprising amount of frustration, because, despite wholeheartedly acknowledging the necessity of lockdown, we felt involuntarily muted instead of being able to contribute to the ‘burning’ public discourse, for example about the dangers of unlimited economic growth at the cost of human and environmental well-being.
Trying to find a voice
When we started to communicate again with the outside world via the Bundeskunsthalle’s social media channels producing online formats such as a filmed guided tour (see above) through the exhibition, I had yet another disturbing feeling: Were we as an institution now trying to profit from the unexpected crisis like ‘war profiteers’? The coincidence of topicality was certainly a gift, but with this gift came the responsibility to contribute to explaining the situation in a meaningful way. And this proved to be a very difficult task during lockdown. If the exhibition were to be compared to a song, lockdown muted large parts of its multiple sound tracks, with only a feeble noise left to be audible in our attempts to keep the exhibition alive online.
The mere fact that the exhibition was temporary added a large amount of anxiety to the general uncertainty of the situation as the duration of lockdown seemed endless. Another painful fact was the complete halt of all educational programmes with severe consequences especially for freelance educational staff. It is one of the roles of curators and docents to represent an exhibition’s content and narrative, serving as its explainers and interpreters. They are expected to increase and amplify an exhibition’s own potential to talk by talking about it. But their explanations and statements loose significance if being detached from the actual exhibition: from the objects on display as well as the exhibition architecture and design, because all these components of an exhibition are telling their own meaningful stories that were locked up behind closed doors.
‘Without things, we would stop talking. We would become as mute as things are alleged to be. If things are ‘’speechless,” perhaps it is because they are drowned out by all the talk about them.’ (Daston 2004, 9)
We were left to talk about the exhibition without the exhibition being able to speak for itself. Every exhibition’s voice is composed of multiple ‘soundtracks’ that create a whole experience. In our case, the following components of We Capitalists were especially difficult to impart online.
(1) There were the c. 250 ‘things’ in the exhibitions that were telling their own stories and were contextualized in often surprising settings, sometimes seemingly communicating with each other for the first time. For example, a marble sculpture from around 1600 of the Roman philosopher Seneca, who had promoted that ‘time is money’ long before Benjamin Franklin, and next to him an A net car phone from 1966 representing the acceleration in communication technology. Presumably, Seneca would have loved this early mobile phone while pursuing his shady business deals. This kind of irony derived from the situation was, for example, not fully conveyable beyond the exhibition space.
(2) The atmosphere within an exhibition room – as an associative space – can only partially be shared through the medium of photography or film. The exhibition architecture and design by Markus Miessen and Lena Mahr consisted of a modular shelf system in bright orange colour, which was supposed to ‘rob the curated exhibits of their hierarchical references’ (quoted from Miessen’s design concept in November 2020, transl. HP). The aesthetics of the exhibition were evoking images of storage halls, server facilities or DIY stores. Miessen’s architecture came as a direct assault on the artworks and objects on display, overtly ignoring their diverse needs regarding materiality and style. In a subtly unsettling way, the artworks and objects assumed the character of commodities.
(3) With the digital Capitalism Game in the exhibition we tried to find and create new methods and narratives for political education. The game raises the question of identity construction in capitalism. During the game, the players collect ‘egos’, the in-game currency, by performing and ‘selling’ their emotions and are drawn into a ‘shopping experience’. In advertised ‘chats’ with individual exhibits offered for sale, the aim is to emotionally recognise one’s own capitalist identity in the age of ‘lifestyle capitalism’. Each player’s consumerist behaviour is tracked throughout the game and results in an ostensibly individualised film, serving as both ‘receipt’ and ‘prize’. The game is experienced as both fun and unsettling at the same time. Within the context of the significant increase of virtual educational formats during lockdown, we are now keen to make the game not only accessible within the reopened exhibition (on until 30 August 2020), but also as an online offer on the website of the Bundeskunsthalle and more permanently on the website of the Federal Agency for Civic Education (www.bpb.de).
The exhibition We Capitalists coincided with a severe economic and social crisis after the global coronavirus outbreak in which the cultural sector quickly became ‘non-essential’ and deprived of substantial income due to closure and lockdown. However, mostly in social media, culture became an essential tool to help people coping with this difficult situation. The exhibition We Capitalists showed that culture and art, only at first glance surprisingly, have a lot to contribute to the analysis and explanation of a socioeconomic system at large or a socioeconomic state at a particular point in time. A press quote from the opening day summed the exhibition up as: ‘A glance into the abyss of what we are. And how we became it’ (WDR: http://www1.wdr.de/kultur/wir-kapitalisten-bundskunsthalle-bonn-102.html, accessed 12 March 2020, transl. HP). Museums and exhibition centres such as the Bundeskunsthalle need to join what Janes and Sandell (2019) call ‘museum activism’ and need to contribute to tell and explain the stories of our political, social, economic and environmental realities, but it’s definitely not easy to be ‘active’ – or even ‘activist’ – while closed.
Daston, L. (ed.) (2004). Things that Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science. New York: Zone Books.
Fisher, M. (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: Zero Books.
Janes, R. R. And Sandell, R. (eds.) (2019). Museum Activism. London and New York: Routledge.
Henriette Pleiger has been working as a curator at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Germany, since 2002. In this position she has co-curated and organized several large temporary exhibitions often combining art, cultural history and science. She is currently studying for a PhD in Museum Practice at the Institute for Cultural Practices of the University of Manchester. Her PhD research project is titled Interdisciplinary Exhibitions and the Production of Knowledge.