Microinvasive Strategies
On the Political Dimension of Marc Brandenburg’s Art

The exhibition “Hirnsturm II” is the most comprehensive show of the work of Berlin artist Marc Brandenburg to date, combining drawings spanning 25 years with the video installation “Camouflage Pullover.” Since the beginnings of his artistic work, Brandenburg has reflected on the white pop culture surrounding him, as well as everyday racism, from the perspective of a “person of color.” But why is the political dimension of his work only being discovered now? Sara Bernshausen, the exhibition’s curator, on the subtly disturbing effect of Brandenburg’s art.

The figures in Marc Brandenburg’s video installation Camouflage Pullover, which forms a central part of his exhibition Hirnsturm II at the PalaisPopulaire, look strangely flat, as if cut out of colored construction paper. It’s as though characters from children’s television, or figures hanging in garlands above the doors of kindergartens or next to school blackboards, had come to life and were now roaming the parks, backyards, and streets of Berlin-Mitte or Kreuzberg. With knitted heads and hands sewn onto found sweaters, they seem almost stereotypically childlike. Everything is reduced to the color of the skin and the woolen hair, the shape of the eyes, mouths, and beards, the geometry and patterns on the sweaters. The “sweater creatures” are all men. One can think of them as something out of a picture book that presents different categories of things or creatures: types of fruit, cars, clothes, fish, birds, nocturnal animals. Or men from all over the world. With pink skin and blond hair. With dark skin, big eyes, and full lips. With olive skin and a dark full beard, with yellowish light brown skin and two slanted lines marking the eyes. It’s a paradox. Precisely because of the childlike, picture-book simplification, because of their woolen skin, these stereotypes appear strangely familiar. So familiar that, like the random passers-by in Brandenburg’s 2018 video installation, you initially almost walk past them, classifying them in a split second, possibly as African, Asian, or Arab, with a migrant background, as a Mitte hipster or an unemployed person.

Perhaps you first look at the sneakers, the posture, or the pattern on the sweater, and only then up at the knitted face reminiscent of a homemade doll, a children’s book, or a greeting card. Perhaps, in passing, you perceive only the everyday gestures and postures that you think you recognize on the spot—the emotional gesticulations between two men kneeling on a picnic blanket, sitting around waiting for the day to finally pass. Perhaps your gaze lingers briefly on the shape of an eye or a lip recalling cartoons, mangas, Lego toys, or the motif on a bar of chocolate, a cocoa can, or a tea package on which the echoes of colonial times still resonate.

But after this barely perceptible moment of seeming recognition, we are puzzled. The costume becomes obvious, as well as everything we project onto it. At the same time, peculiar life stirs beneath the woolen masks. Knitted fabric has the characteristic of clinging to every contour of the body. And so we see the cheekbones, the breathing of the actors. Under camouflage sweaters that purport to represent an “Arab” or “Mediterranean” man, breasts push through. Like ski or fetish masks, the knitted heads have zippers at the back or even at the mouth; they could be used as costumes in music videos and children’s shows, or as disguises during acts of violence.

These details are just as ambivalent and sensitively staged as the supposedly simple actions performed by the silent actors in Brandenburg’s Camouflage Pullover: strolling from point A to point B while “talking,” waiting on a park bench, walking down a dark street, pausing briefly in front of the flashing LED displays of a tanning salon. In one video segment, the white actress Nicolette Krebitz puts on a “black” mask, and the dark-skinned director of Kunstraum Potsdam, Mike Gessner, demonstratively dons a “white” mask. Underneath the men’s masks are people of various ages and genders, with different skin colors, cultural backgrounds, and sexual orientations.

In his video work, as in his entire body of drawings over the past three decades, the artist, born in Berlin in 1965 to an African American GI and a German mother, investigates racism, identity, gender, and representation. But in doing so, Brandenburg avoids any kind of didacticism, partisanship, or polemic. And as with his drawings, it is important to him to keep the means as simple as possible. He speaks of “low-fi art,” alluding to low-fi music recorded using outdated or extremely simple equipment.š He executed Camouflage Pullover just as unspectacularly as his pencil drawings, which he usually makes sitting on the floor in normal room light and could make anywhere with no special equipment. The actors are friends of the artist. The sequences were shot with cell phones in neighborhoods where Brandenburg and all the actors have been hanging out for decades. Many Berliners who live near Weinbergspark, Mauerpark, or Görlitzer Park will recognize not only the surroundings but also the passers-by shown in the video, who move through these areas day in and day out. It is precisely this “microinvasive” strategy that is the key strength of Brandenburg’s work, in which the artist mostly makes use of the obvious: not only simple means of production but also the slightest shifts that challenge a supposedly fixed social reality. Brandenburg’s Camouflage Pullovers are enigmatic because they are so ambivalent, nostalgic in an almost childlike way yet latently violent and sexualized. The Camouflage Pullover performances can be seen as a subtle experiment that explores how “foreign” and “familiar” bodies move in urban, public space. En passant, Brandenburg poses questions about power, belonging, and territory.
The video installation is a continuation of the work Camouflage Pullover for Foreigners, which was created in 1992, the year of the racist riots in Rostock Lichtenhagen, the arson attacks in Mölln, as well as the police violence against the African American Rodney King and the resulting riots in Los Angeles after the police officers who had severely injured him with over fifty baton blows were acquitted. Asked in an interview about this exhibition why he wanted to revisit the work, Brandenburg replied: “Back in 2017, when I started the Camouflage Pullovers up again, I realized: man, this work is twenty-five years old now, and things haven’t actually gotten better, just worse.” Continuing the work also meant transferring the sweaters, which had previously been unwearable and could only be seen as a wall installation in Brandenburg’s first institutional exhibition at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, into public space. With his friend Bettina Scheeder, who had knitted the first version, he developed wearable models for performers. One can view these figures, with their paradoxical mixture of the familiar and the strange, as triggers that move through the urban environment, eliciting all kinds of images and feelings.

It is not the intentions of the Camouflage Pullovers that are racist but the associations they provoke, the “brainstorms” they release. In this sense, Brandenburg’s drawings of the last twenty-five years can be seen as a foray into the pop culture of the almost exclusively white society that surrounds him. The graphic images he creates seem swirled up as though in a snow globe. They flash out of a collective subconscious in which snapshots from mass culture mingle with his own biographical impressions. Much more clearly than might have been noticeable a decade ago, Brandenburg’s drawing installations speak of a neurotic, addicted, latently violent, and racist pop culture.

More than twenty-five years after the first prototypes, the new, emotional Camouflage Pullover collection encounters a changed global society marked by vehement debates about racism, gender, identity, and freedom of expression. In the 1990s, discussions about colonial history and a systemic racism that permeated political and cultural institutions, and especially the legislature, tended to be seen in Germany as a matter for the US or former colonial powers like France or Great Britain. For some time, however, people have begun realizing that there is a very specific racism in Germany that has long been overlooked and is still being ignored. For example, the artist Hito Steyerl and the publicist Mark Terkessidis pointed out in Die Zeit weekly newspaper at the beginning of 2021 that far more people took to the streets and demonstrated in the summer of 2020 in reaction to the murder of George Floyd than after the racist, right-wing extremist attack in Hanau, where nine people had been murdered shortly before—Roma and Romnija, people of Kurdish, Bosnian, and Afghan origin.² The handling of the NSU attacks on migrants in the middle of German society should also be mentioned here.

Brandenburg’s art, perhaps because of the artist’s American roots, has long been read primarily as a commentary on non-German pop culture and subculture—not as the perspective of a German “person of color” probing his immediate surroundings and documenting, almost diary-like, a life that takes place primarily in a very white, German context. It took decades and a cultural shift in Germany for people to begin to recognize the political dimension of Brandenburg’s work. This is reflected by the intense discussions prior to the exhibition and during the production of the catalogue. For example, it was debated whether the N-words in the interview printed in the catalogue, even in the context of a conversation about racism in Germany in the 1960s and 70s, should be written out or abbreviated to leave no room for racist terms. While the editors and copyeditor suggested abbreviation, Brandenburg insisted that the words be written out. It is precisely such discussions that show how difficult it is to deal with the racist legacy in Germany.

“I am racist because I live in a society in which structural racism still runs parallel to social injustice, and in which someone with light skin, whether he or she likes it or not, experiences privileges or at least can avoid endangerment and disadvantage. And I live in a racist culture, or at least in one that overtly or covertly drags along fragments of its racist heritage, some even in the form of cultural sanctuaries,” postulated the renowned cultural journalist Georg Seeßlen this spring under the headline Es wird schmerzhaft (It’s Getting Painful), also in Die Zeit.³ In his essay, he describes the extent to which racist clichés are anchored in monuments, texts, pictures, films, comics, and TV series—areas that Brandenburg also explores. For Seeßlen, one of the biggest problems is a kind of dearly held racism: “This stabs right into the heart of European culture: the children’s books you once loved so much, Pippi Longstocking or Jim Knopf; the comics you devoured, Tarzan or Akim, Flash Gordon or Prince Valiant; the pop songs you mindlessly warbled ...” It is almost impossible to not be racist in a society that is still racist and in a culture that has still not learned to deal with its racist heritage, Seeßlen writes. Ultimately, he calls for a “rewriting” of the cultural history of postcolonial societies and nations—with the participation of the descendants of victims of colonial violence.

To be sure, Brandenburg’s artistic practice can be seen as a proposal for such a “rewriting” of colonially shaped history. Not only because he deals with history and pop culture in his drawing installations from the point of view of a gay, black German, or, as Oliver Koerner von Gustorf says in his essay in the exhibition catalogue, because he has engaged with William S. Burroughs’s and Brion Gysin’s works and subversive theories of language. Brandenburg operates from a position of powerlessness, devoid of any masculine pathos. Not only because he is an autodidact who taught himself his virtuoso drawing style and came to the professional art world in the early 1990s as a virtual newcomer from the fashion and club scene. Just as his means are simple and “modest” (paper and pencil), the handwork he uses to realize his fabric sculptures and Camouflage Pullovers is feminine and domestic. Even in the era of “post-conceptual art” in which he began his career, traditional female handwork was avoided or ironized, with very few exceptions (Rosemarie Trockel and Kai Althoff). One artist who certainly had an important impact on Brandenburg in the late 1980s was Mike Kelley, with his cuddly animal sculptures More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987) and his installation Pay for Your Pleasure (1988). In the latter, one passes through a gallery of portraits of famous poets, thinkers, and artists, eventually ending up at a naive clown portrait of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Kelley’s work from this period conjures up something abysmal and psychotic, a Freudian “discontented civilization” that can also be felt in Brandenburg’s work.

Marc Brandenburg’s early Camouflage Pullovers from 1992 speak of coulrophobia, or a fear of clowns, of “blackfacing” and masked, veiled violence. At the same time, they address the postmodern notion of being able to put on or take off identity like a sweater. With the wearable, performative Camouflage Pullovers that operate in urban space, Brandenburg proposes an ambivalent, fluid notion of identity. In their cryptic speechlessness, the masked actors in the video sequences convey not only surreal moods and mere strangeness. They also embody the uncanny limbo in which our society finds itself, just beginning to come to terms with systemic racism and the colonial past. The insecurity they exude is also a projection—making us wonder what it would be like for us to be in this woolly skin for a moment, at the mercy of our own gazes and judgments.

š Marc Brandenburg, in Marc Brandenburg. Normex, exh. cat. Städtische Galerie Wolfsburg, 2013.
² Hito Steyerl and Mark Terkessidis, “Die Wahrnehmungsschwelle,” in Die Zeit, January 6, 2021.
³ Georg Seeßlen, “Es wird schmerzhaft,” in Die Zeit, June 30, 2020.

Marc Brandenburg:
Hirnsturm II

Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
Oct 28, 2021 - Jan 30, 2022