In the second part of her blog series, Sarah Pogoda (University of Sheffield) presents the background to ‘The Happening: Germany Surrenders’, and offers us the video trailer of her event. The Happening formed part of the Sheffield Animatograph Project, aimed at bringing together Sheffield’s residents to create an installation of identity and memory.
This is the background of an event that took place in May 2015 at Furnace Park in Sheffield as part of the Animatograph Project “Bellotograph”. “Germany Surrenders” was designed as a “Happening” about the commemoration of the end of World War II in Germany and in Britain. Aware of the dilemma I mentioned in the previous blog post of having a range of symbolic gestures at hand to commemorate historical events but none of them holding any specific and authentic meaning, the Happening provided an experimental space to explore the commemoration rituals of both German and British cultures. In order to do this, the Happening was scripted but lacked an anticipated outcome or didactical intention. It also required, therefore, flexibility in its script; audience participation would be unpredictable as well as the actors’ reactions. This open layout was essential to the premise of creating a transnational social sculpture of commemoration.
To mark the ceremonial character of the Happening I chose the frame of a religious procession. The procession also fitted with the ‘community building’ purposes of commemoration rituals in regard to national identities. As much as Auschwitz is fundamental for today’s German identity, the Victory in Europe is also essential for British notions of identity (the BBC covered the 70th anniversary with a five day special feature on the various remembrance events taking place in early May). We managed to find a location with an upper and lower level which was important to me, since prominent memorials, such as the Buchenwald Memorial, for instance, work with a topography that allows for a procession of large numbers of people uphill.
When the audience of the Happening approached the site they noticed a man digging the ground with a spade. It would be this man who would begin the procession. When he heard the church bells calling the visitors to gather at the lower level, he carried the spade and handed it over to the procession leader. As you can see in the trailer, the Happening follows the framework of a procession – more or less – integrating several commemoration rituals of both Britain and Germany. I decided to go for the speech I mentioned in my last post by Joachim Gauck and, correspondingly, the speech held by the British Prime Minister David Cameron on the same day. Cameron’s speech was a remarkable example of how to assemble the rhetoric of political speeches on the remembrance of the Holocaust and fitted perfectly with intention of the Happening .
Each speech was followed by an appropriate symbolic act that was to compliment the speeches’ commemorative rhetoric. In case of the Gauck’s speech, in which the main message was “there is no German identity without Auschwitz”, we used the hole that was dug in the opening of the Happening to heap up soil from approximately 20 NS-concentration and NS-extermination camps and finally to plant an oak tree. The oak tree is not only a relic of German mythical heritage but it was also meant as a reference to Joseph Beuys – one of the most important post war German action artists. The procession was marked as a Happening by the presence of this oak tree. Furthermore, the oak tree is also a reference to Great Britain since it is the national tree of England. However, I also felt that poppy seeds would be the most appropriate and best known symbolic act for this occasion, and the audience was therefore asked to spread poppy seeds onto the soil just moments after David Cameron ended his speech. And they did so. Surprisingly most of the spectators participated in the rituals taking place – they followed the procession, they carried the jars with the soil, they heaped up the soil, they spread the poppy seeds and, what I still find striking, they repeated the words “We shall remember” and “Hallelujah” on command after they were called out over the megaphone.
The megaphone was only one of the devices, along with three cameras, a dictaphone and a visible script, used to expose the making and staging of the whole event. And, by naming this, I point to the fundamental ambivalence of the Happening, an event designed to create or evoke authentic moments on the one hand and, on the other, to undermine any notion of authenticity.
The Happening explored whether there remains any remnants of meaning or authenticity within the used up rhetoric and symbols, whilst challenging the notion of the construction of national identity. In general the concept of a Happening is not to give answers but to raise questions. And most crucial to the project was the idea of providing people with the experience of commemoration rituals. Those who participated experienced something. And hopefully, they felt uncomfortable during and after it. I did, and still do. I felt uncomfortable using the soil, I felt even more uncomfortable planting the oak tree, and listening to the German national anthem brought the whole situation to a head.
Of course Joachim Gauck was right to say that there is no German identity without Auschwitz. And of course, we must remember the victims of NS atrocities. But with commemoration simply becoming a matter of course, and especially with Germany turning commemoration simply into political correct gestures, the culture of remembrance is threatening to become a culture of forgetting.
For more info on the project see: