On Activism

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The Un-taming of the Image


I was invited to do a Tedx-talk, a usually 15min speech that is held in front of an audience and later uploaded to YouTube. And while writing the speech, I decided not to go. I was asked to hold a speech in the context of „exploring new territories“, and I decided to write something about activism. The result is the un-held speech below which I would like to share here with you.

// I came to write this following text in a quiet street in Berlin. It’s a hot summer-day. I’m sitting outside a shadowy café, opposite of a chapel. Red, pink and orange flowers are blossoming next to me. I’m drinking coffee and water. Occasionally, the birds are singing, but they sound lazy from the heat. The sky is bright blue and the place is full of peace. I’m a bit hungry. The waiter is french and a very handsome guy with wild, dark hair. //

I’m Josephine Witt, 22 years old, from Hamburg. My talk today will be about activism, why I think it is necessary and what I think is important to consider.

My first action was in Berlin in February 2013, it was an attack against a meeting of a german neo-nazi party. I had joined the FEMEN movement, a feminist group founded in Kiev in 2008, known for its shocking topless protests. The credo was «Our mission is protest, our weapons are bare breasts». We undressed in the cold of Berlin’s winter, the protest lasted for a couple of moments, then we were arrested by the police and released about one hour later again. The photos were spread through the internet and printed in many german newspapers the following day.

When I came home after and started to think about what just had happened, the most dominant was a new feeling about my body. Something had changed, I could feel it very clearly. There was some new power, some new relevance, a political energy about it, I had never noticed before. It was my body, but people looked at it in shock and disturbance.

It was amusing and empowering at the same time, and I wondered what that was exactly.

The «Naked Protest», the revolt of the female body against the patriarchy, is shifting the power-paradigm around, so that the body, the former object, that has only ever been spoken about, becomes a force of expression, a demanding subject.

This sudden shift sparks an irrational panic amongst the spectators who then, in most cases, react with violence towards the women, beat them, kick them, threaten them with guns, wrestle them to the ground and hide their naked breasts.

What is shown within seconds can be described as: liberation – protest- repression – arrest.

The photos taken by the press went all across the globe. The FEMEN protest was heavily discussed, often condemned and rarely understood, but the media loved to print us anyway.

Or was it simply the hunger for media attention, that made us undress, so that we could spread our message to a global audience?

This had often been claimed, sometimes even by activists themselves.

As if our breasts were only the generators for attention, in order to achieve a discussion about our feminist ideas.

In my opinion this is a very shortsighted and utterly false analysis of the protesting with exposed breasts. If we would agree to say we only did it for the attention, we would admit, that the act of exposed breasts outside it’s predefined space of acceptance within patriarchy, would be a wrong thing to do.

But is it? No!

Even considering there would be no media anywhere to later share the photos of what happened, it would be an absolutely right thing to do, to attack Vladimir Putin with bare breasts, calling him a dictator.

It is vital to create exactly this: An act that is ‚good‘ in itself.

By that I mean: No matter what will follow, if there will be a massive discussion afterwards or not, if there will be political changes or not, can the act justify itself?

When I plan an action, I take care about the following things:

1. Nobody gets hurt

2. The right time

3. The right place

4. An aesthetical shift of the situation

If one of these criteria is not fulfilled, I can not see self-justification for the action, and I decide not to do it.

But if all these conditions are met, and the action is carried out, what is to be witnessed then, is the creation of an image.

There would have been great opportunities for me to make a lot of money with my actions. Instead, this money was made by others. For example, the photos of my action in the Cologne cathedral were sold for more than a quarter of a million worldwide. Also I know there are people who’d be willing to pay me a lot of money if they could instruct me to make a protest against their chosen target. Even close friends have suggested me to accept such offers.

I don’t want this to sound as moral as it does: but I could never imagine to do such contract work.

No sponsors and no financial benefits must stand behind the actions. It would no longer be a political action or protest or anything of intrinsic value.

Tedx in Hamburg is sponsored by «Deutsche Bank», «Mediacom», «Airbus», etc. You can find the list online. Furthermore you’ll find other regular sponsors of Ted/Tedx events, like «Google», «IBM», «Daimler», «Coca-Cola», «Unilever», etc.

Ted/Tedx are devoted to «Ideas worth spreading». The people who were responsible of recruiting the speakers for the talk told me that they were very aware of the fact that it seems to be a specific characteristic of people from my generation, that we are looking for «meaning in the world» and that it is therefore profitable for companies and corporations to transport certain ethics in order to get hold of the geniuses.

People my generation who search for «meaning» do not stop there. Pretty many of them go further and look for «change», also.

The ethics that Ted/Tedx represent are then the following: That it is possible to change conditions by the combination of optimism and technology/design.

I don’t believe the recipe «optimism+technology/design» does actually achieve change. What I have observed so far, all it does is deluding people with gradual innovations while actually creating, sharpening and hardening the overall conditions.

The Ted/Tedx approach is global and the ideas captured in 15min frames spread all over the world.

The photos of my actions also have been spread all over the globe.

But in order to change the world, we must first consider that we do not live in «one world». We live in many different worlds, worlds that do collide sometimes, and are connected, worlds of consciousnesses.

But the popular opinion of «only one world as one‚ shared‘ space», does already suggest a severe problem that lies here: uniformization.

Uniformization of perception and thought is triggered by neglecting the existence of consciousness as a individual reality and is an utter necessity for the persistence and even global spread of top-down-social-structures.

Uniformization is brought by various factors, but the one I want to focus on now again is «the image». As I said before, what is created during the protest is an image.

The world is perceived through images.

Images are everywhere, more images exist right now than ever before in human history. Everybody captures them with their lenses on cameras, laptops or smartphones, through selfies, as tourists of Paris who shoot the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel tower is the world’s most photographed sight, it is almost obligatory as a tourist to take the selfie with the tower in the back. The Eiffel Tower is shot in the exact same way. The same image is reproduced over and over and over again, nothing differs except the pattern of the clouds in the background. The more images there are, the more equal they get. The images are similar, as if there would be an authority of aesthetics.

It is quite easy to understand the existence of such aesthetical authority.

Imagine a photo of a woman showing some underarm hair. And a photo of a refugee from syria.

The picture of the woman with underarm hair shocks the people. Even if there is no thing more natural than underarm hair on grown women. It is essentially nothing bad. Whereas refugees suffering homelessness and hunger is something bad, but provokes no outcry whatsoever.

We can see here how the obedience towards two authorities is responsible for creating this controversy. On the one hand, «war», on the other hand «beauty industry».

There exists a taboo for creating images showing underarm hair, even though there is nothing wrong with it.

Pictures following same rules of aesthetics are reproduced, as if the world of images needed to be tamed.

What follows is a certain «routine of imagery».

When TV only existed in black and white, it is reported that people often dreamed in black and white. The routine of imagery consumed by everybody puts a routine of thinking in the minds. (nobody played this card better than the nazis. But i’ll not mention nazis in the talk.)

This routine is what my activism attacks.

For the first time, a topless women stands on Cologne cathedral, in the same pose like Jesus.

And if Draghi will be wearing the banker’s pokerface on each picture, we would accept him like that the whole time and not even consider him looking weak like that.

It is not only the routine of the christmas procedure I broke with my protest in Cologne. It is also the routine of imagery that are produced and keep a certain status quo.

To be even able to question the status quo, we need to have a choice in our imagination, a choice for an alternative, or even one million alternatives.

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