Art and Politics, Uncategorized

Searching for a queer Utopia hidden in Shrek and The Lego Movie

Jack Halberstam, Columbia University Professor of English and Comparative Literature, finds that both “Shrek” and “The Lego Movie” can be viewed as counter-narratives that challenge dominant heteronormative conceptions of success and gender-identities. Responding to children’s independence from these conceptions, children’s movies depict alternative forms of community and association, effectively turning into windows of opportunity with transformative potential for the imagining of a queer utopia in the cinematic industry.

Victor’s cinema

If history is written by victors, then most of mainstream cinema is made by successful people with a clear understanding of what their (adult) audience wants: sentiment, progress and closure (Halberstam 2001: 119). Children’s movies however usually lack all of the above in order to fully acknowledge the nature of children’s narrative desires, which in turn tend to be amoral, antiteleological and unsentimental (Halberstam 2001: 119). In fact in this very indifference towards established norms and narrative tools lies children’s films’ potential transformative power. Queer and gender theorist Jack Halberstam explains in “The Queer Art of Failure” (2001) and the recent public lecture titled “Unbuilding Gender: Trans* Anarchitectures In and Beyond the Work of Gordon Matta-Clark“ (Basel, 16.10.18) how children’s films can be viewed as countering and challenging dominant conceptions of success and gender.

The power of being wrong

Starting with Shrek (2001) the author points out the queerness of this animated fairy-tale, which depicts a wide range of queer embodiments and relations (Halberstam 2001: 119). An ogre living in a swamp teams up with a speaking donkey to fight for the rights of the exiled fairy-tale community and eventually both end up falling in love with “inappropriate partners”: Shrek falls in love with a princess and Donkey is courted by a dragon. Furthermore the otherness of fairy-tale creatures is reason enough for the villagers to despise and exclude them, pushing them to the margins of society. It is not until other fairy-tale creatures are exiled into Shrek’s swamp, that he realizes that because of their difference, their personal and political spheres are intertwined. Their appearances are no longer a personal matter, but are reason for political acts of discrimination. To stand up for the rights of the dispossessed fairy-tale community, Shrek becomes a freedom fighter opposing the evil Lord Farquaad, who is enacting the discriminating laws. In this confrontation, the Lord represents all the qualities that Shrek lacks: power, wealth, success and social status. Although it seems quite impossible for Shrek to win this battle, by joining forces with the other fairy-tale creatures he manages to overthrow Lord Farquaad. For Halbertsam the beauty of the film lies in the embracing of queer characters and relationships and in not choosing success over failure. Shrek and his friends win the battle not despite of their queerness, but because of it. In embracing their failure of being normal and in joining forces to fight for more equality, they surprise Lord Farquaad and his knights and take his castle by storm. They remind us that there is something powerful in being wrong and that “empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers” (Benjamin 1969: 256). So the movie calls out to it’s viewers to walk the unbeaten tracks, to take the wrong turns or get to lost, because there is as much happiness and delight to being viewed as wrong and failing to fit in as to succeed in doing so.

The gluing of gender and sexuality

Continuing with The Lego Movie (2014) Jack Halberstam draws the parallel between the inhabitants of Legoberg building and unbuilding their town everyday and the Architectural Turn in Gender Studies, which theorized the body as a piece of architecture, that could be built, altered and unbuilt at will. Legoberg stands therefore for a dismantling of the social world, where we now have the freedom to construct our identity brick by brick with the ease of using a Lego-Set. But trouble enters Legoberg in form of Lord Business, who plans to glue everything in constant, unchangeable perfection, using his evil super-glue. For Halberstam this image of freezing perfection is a concept deeply rooted in heteronormative common sense, where the gender-binary and “appropriate” sexuality are naturalized and effectively essentialized. In this logic, gender and sexuality are static concepts, “givens” of a sort, that can’t be altered individually, because of the social control exerted in society. The only hope for Legoberg and metaphorically speaking for us is the so-called pièce de résistance, a brick that can undo the power of the super-glue and bring back the fluidity and make the construction of our reality visible again. Predictably, at the end of The Lego Movie the pièce de résistance is found and the evil Lord Business is defeated. Where do we find our personal pièce de résistance to unglue the given concepts of our everyday-life?

Unbuilding mainstream cinema

Jack Halberstam gives us the example of Gordon Matta-Clark, an architect who studied the works of Le Corbusier, only to deconstruct his concepts, rearrange them and turn them inside out. Instead of simply applying Modernism’s esthetical tools, he used a concept of linguistic reversal in architecture: instead of building houses, he cut pieces out of them or split them in half, opening up new views and spaces filled with nothing but light and air. Same as Gordon Matta-Clark didn’t take his teachings at face value, we shouldn’t simply accept the gendered world as it is, but strip it of its natural, static character and bring the dominant narrative of the essential gender-binary and heteronormativity to it’s knees. Finding a way of de-essentializing and de-naturalizing the dominant order would mean to find the pièce de résistance to unbuild our social reality, opening up the possibilities of building new imaginings of a queer utopia.

Same as there’s no place for light and air in faceless concrete buildings, there isn’t any space for a queer utopia in mainstream cinema. But like Gordon Matta-Clark who opened up the room with his Cuttings to let light and air into the newly created space, children’s movies cut into the mainstream and open it up to new forms of relating and belonging, effectively letting imaginings of a queer utopia into the film industry.

Text by Fabian Hofmann.

Art and Politics

Veranstaltungshinweis: Lust am Widerspruch

Die Kaserne Basel startet heute Abend um 20 Uhr die Veranstaltungsreihe Lust am Widerspruch mit der kraftvollen, dokumentarischen Theaterproduktion Ef_feminity.

Lust am Widerspruch ist allerdings mehr als eine Veranstaltunsreihe. Sie bezeichnet den Beginn einer längerfristigen Kooperation mit dem Zentrum Gender Studies und dem Swiss Center for Social Research. Dies soll neue Erfahrungs- und Wissensräume im Dialog zwischen Theorie und Theater- bzw. Performancepraxis ermöglichen. Um mehr zu erfahren, klicken Sie hier.


Foto: Du bist eine Rebellin. © Privat.
Art and Politics

The first Lecture: Banu Karaca

We successfully started The Art of Intervention-Lecture series with Banu Karacas insightful lecture Rethinking Debates on Freedom of the Arts and its Limits. Here are some impressions from the evening.


We are very much looking forward to our next lecture, this time by Jack Halberstam, called Unbuilding Gender: Trans* Anarchitectures In and Beyond the Work of Gordon Matta-Clark, on tuesday, 16.10.2018, at 6pm.

Halberstam will discuss the anarchitectural practices of American artist Gordon Matta-Clark (1943–1978) and link the ideas of unbuilding and creative destruction that characterize his work to develop a queer concept of anarchitecture focused upon the trans* body.

For more information, please see also the program of the lecture series.


Fotos: Impressions from the lecture. © Private.
Exhibition reviews

Medienspiegel zur Ausstellung (1)

Die Ausstellung War Games von Martha Rosler und Hito Steyerl hat ein grosses und positives Medien-Echo erhalten. Machen Sie sich selbst einen Eindruck:

1.5.2018     Artinside: Hito Steyerl & Martha Rosler: War Games
4.5.2018     BZ Basel: Vorne Selfie, hinten Bürgerkrieg
4.5.2018     Basler Zeitung: Vom Versuch, das Ganze wieder in den Blick zu bekommen
5.5.2018     Deutschlandfunk Kultur: Krieg und Medien
6.5.2018     Badische Zeitung: Kritik der Kontaminierung

Im Alltag vergessen wird, dass das Internet ursprünglich für militärische Zwecke entwickelt wurde, oder dass der urbane Parcourssport auf einer militärischen Trainingstechnik beruht, die von französischen Soldaten für Kampf- und Flucht-situationen erarbeitet wurde. – Yvonne Ziegler, Badische Zeitung

11.5.2018    Badische Zeitung: Vietnamkrieg im Wohnzimmer
22.5.2018    SonntagsZeitung: Wie sich die Bilder gleichen
24.5.2018    Le Courrier: L’art, cette arme de réflexion massive

Und plötzlich fragt man sich: Warum wird mit Drohnen kaum je nach oben, in den offenen Himmel hineingefilmt, sondern immer nur das beschränkte Gewusel am Boden ins Visier genommen? – Daniela Janser, WOZ

24.5.2018    WOZ – Die Wochenzeitung: Der Krieg, der im Blumenbouquet steckt
28.5.2018    Kulturtipp: Schmerzhafte Einstiche
29.5.2018    Monopol: Kriegsspiele
30.5.2018    taz: Schule der Autonomie

1.6.2018     Programmzeitung: Starke Werke von starken Frauen
9.6.2018     SonntagsBlick: Immer im Bild

Rosler’s work has made visible what Marshall McLuhan noted in his 1970 essay Culture Is Our Business: “World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation.” – Riccardo Conti, Mousse Magazine

11.6.2018    Mousse Magazine: Martha Rosler & Hito Steyerl: War Games
11.6.2018    Der Bund / Tages-Anzeiger: Was Frauen mit der Kunst machen
20.6.2018    Spike Art: Martha Rosler: Off the Shelf
21.6.2018    Art Viewer: Martha Rosler & Hito Steyerl at Kunstmuseum Basel

In gewisser Weise ist die Finanzierung sozialer Kunstpraktiken durch reiche Stiftungen ein Zugeständnis an die Daseinsberechtigung von Randgemeinschaften. Man gibt ihnen eine Organisationsplattform, schwächt aber gleichzeitig die Militanz ihrer Forderung nach sozialer Veränderung. – Martha Rosler im Interview mit Marc Neumann, NZZ

26.6.2018    Neue Zürcher Zeitung: «Kunst muss nicht um soziale Fragen kreisen»

1.7.2018      Art Monthly: Martha Rosler and Hito Steyerl: War Games
12.7.2018    Eikon: Martha Rosler & Hito Steyerl: War Games

Selten hat eine Ausstellung zwei künstlerische Positionen derart überzeugend miteinander verwoben. Auch wenn der Generationensprung, zum Glück, gerade nicht der Motor der Doppelschau ist, lässt sich dennoch ein Zeitindex in den Arbeiten ablesen. – Beate Söntgen, FAZ

25.7.2018     Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: Die Banalität des Drohnentheaters


Bild: Sinnspruch von H. P. Adamski in den Hackeschen Höfen, Berlin. © Privat, 2015.
About Us

Creative politics and political creativity

On the occasion of the exhibition War Games by Martha Rosler & Hito Steyerl at the Kunstmuseum Basel, this series of events will explore interventions in the arts and humanities that are intensely critical and fun, politically creative and creatively political, espousing queer-feminist, postcolonial and intersectional perspectives. As Steyerl proposed,

If politics is thought of as the Other, happening somewhere else, always belonging to disenfranchised communities in whose name no one can speak, we end up missing what makes art intrinsically political nowadays: its function as a place for labor, conflict, and…fun—a site of condensation of the contradictions of capital and of extremely entertaining and sometimes devastating misunderstandings between the global and the local.

In short, we focus on what art is best at: to inspire us to think, see and feel otherwise.

This involves rethinking the notions of intervention and critique as well as analyzing prevailing discourses on identity, migration, integration and globalization. We theorize interventions, endorsed or unendorsed, authorized or illicit, as performative acts of critique, politics, and activism with a potential to subvert the status quo. Interventions in the arts and humanities enable new encounters and can lead to (unlikely) coalitions in the struggle for justice. Yet interventions can also incite censorship and other coercive measures. Our event series aims to explore the myriad forms of the art of intervention while setting out to shed light on the potentiality of art as intervention.


Written by Bilgin Ayata, Dominique Grisard, Andrea Zimmermann