Artist Tania Bruguera cut short a 100-hour reading of a text by Hannah Arendt after pro-Palestine protestors interrupted the event in Berlin.
The reading, a performance called Where Your Ideas Become Civic Actions (100 Hours Reading The Origins of Totalitarianism), was staged at the Hamburger Bahnhof this past weekend. During the performance, Bruguera and others read from a 1951 book in which Arendt theorized how totalitarian movements such as Nazism arise.
Yet the marathon reading did not go entirely as planned. Twice, the event was interrupted—once at Bruguera’s urging and once in an unplanned protest. That latter interruption involved protestors shouting “Zionism is a crime” and other variations, and then personally confronting Bruguera.
On Instagram, a group called Thawra posted what appeared to be video of that second interruption, in which protestors accused Bruguera of platforming Zionists, supporting Israel, and failing to include Palestinians in the event. (In fact, Bruguera was one of thousands of artists who signed a recent letter that labeled the killing of thousands of Palestinians a “genocide.”) A heated moment ensued in which the protestors confronted Alice Koegel, the curator who organized the event, and told Bruguera, who is Cuban, that she is a “gringa” who comes from a privileged background.
“First of all, you don’t know who I am,” Bruguera shouts back, having listened to them for a period. “You don’t know my history. You don’t know everything I’ve done for Palestinians and for all the people in the world.”
“You’re still a white person!” a protestor shouts back. “Gringa!”
While certain reports in the media this past weekend stated that both interruptions were unplanned, Bruguera refuted this in a statement posted to her Instagram on Monday.
“They came, they protested, they made their points, people listened, some reacted, some observed, and they departed peacefully. The performance continued,” she wrote. “I don’t understand the fear of confrontation or accountability. I also condemn if further action is taken against the activists.”
Her statement seemed to contradict one issued the day before by the Hamburger Bahnhof in which the museum said the protestors had “attacked” the museum two times on Saturday. The Hamburger Bahnhof statement accused protestors of using “violent hate speech” against a reader and directors Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath.
“We respect and fully stand by the decision of the artist and refuse categorically any form of hate speech and violence,” Bardaouil and Fellrath wrote in the museum’s statement, which was posted to Instagram. “It is to our deep regret that we have to proceed this way in order to protect the safety of the participants of the performance. We invite people to reflect upon the consequences of not respecting the #FreedomOfArt.”
German officials echoed the language of the museum. Hermann Parzinger, the leader of a Berlin consortium of museums that includes the Hamburger Bahnhof, called the protests “unbearable.” Claudia Roth, the country’s culture minister, said in a statement, “Hate, anti-Semitism, racism and such forms of violence are absolutely unacceptable and have no place in art or anywhere else. This evil anti-Semitism and racism was obviously directed directly against a Jewish cultural worker, the Cuban artist and a manager of the Hamburger Bahnhof.”
The fracas surrounding the Bruguera performance was yet another event that exposed a gaping fault line in Germany, where the art scene has been polarized by the October 7 Hamas attack and the conflict taking place in Gaza. Shows have been canceled, and invitations for professorships and talks have been rescinded.
Another recent controversy that previously embroiled the writings of Arendt, who was Jewish, also surrounded the Bruguera performance. Journalist Masha Gessen was to receive an award in Arendt’s name in Bremen, but after Gessen compared Gaza to Nazi-era ghettoes, an organization pulled out of the ceremony. Gessen did ultimately receive the award in a scaled-back ceremony.
Gessen was among those who was slated to participate in the Bruguera reading performance, alongside artist Bani Abidi, Unorthodox author Deborah Feldman, and others.