CITIES, theatre

incendiary performance: christoph schlingensief (Interview: Anna Teresa Scheer)

ART WITHOUT BORDERS, EDITED BY TARA FORREST AND ANNA TERESA SCHEER, RECENTLY PUBLISHED BY INTELLECT, IS THE FIRST MONOGRAPH ON CHRISTOPH SCHLINGENSIEF, THE GERMAN THEATRE AND FILM ARTIST WHO DIED IN JULY 2010. IT IS THE FIRST ENGLISH LANGUAGE RESOURCE ON THE MAN CONSIDERED TO BE ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT 20TH CENTURY ARTISTS OF THE GERMAN SPEAKING WORLD, BUT ALSO THE FIRST ACADEMIC STUDY OF A VERY PROVOCATIVE OEUVRE. I SPOKE IN MELBOURNE WITH ANNA TERESA SCHEER ABOUT THE ARTIST AND THE BOOK.

First things first: Schlingensief is almost entirely unknown in Australia.

In 2008, when I returned to Australia, I realised Schlingensief’s work was among that which had really impressed me during my 14 years in Germany—especially when I realised how apolitical Australian art had become in the Howard years. For example, there was no attempt to test the sedition laws. People seemed afraid of losing the support of the funding bodies. Schlingensief, by contrast, had gone out on a limb time after time, in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. He was arrested twice and wasn’t bothered about the consequences.

In Germany, I was used to him being a household name—an unusual position for a theatre artist. It became especially apparent to me that his work needed to be written up when I began my postgraduate studies. He’s not mentioned in any of the ample literature that was coming out on politics and performance. American and British perspectives dominate the field, and still focus on people like Augusto Boal. Even Baz Kershaw, in The Radical in Performance, still talks about The Living Theatre and the Welfare State International from the 1960s.

After nearly 30 years of work, not much has been published on Schlingensief. Of course, there were articles in German papers and magazines, but that’s not the same as a scholarly, referenceable book. His work wasn’t considered serious—which didn’t detract from its power, from it being always sold out at the Volksbuehne in Berlin. The writing that did get published was primarily from his own collaborators. I was interested in how other people thought about the work, how it could be understood. In this book, we move from Adorno to Brecht to Goffman, looking for interpretive context.

We know Schlingensief as a theatre-maker, but his theatre career was an accident. He was an underground filmmaker when Matthias Lilienthal invited him to work in the re-established Volksebuehne in former East Berlin.

An incredibly smart move for Lilienthal, to pick up on a man who says his films were only ever going to be shown in cellar cinemas. Schligensief was invited after making the third film in his German trilogy, Terror 2000: Intensive Station Germany, which lampoons Germany’s memorial culture—politicians laying wreaths at every opportunity, the Gladbecker hostage disaster, the plight of the asylum seekers—piling up a lot of stuff together using very unaesthetic, trashy means. The film was called sexist, racist, every negative epithet you can imagine. And he was invited by Lilienthal to retort to critiques in a stage production.

I am intrigued by Rocky Dutschke ‘68 (1996), an early theatre work in which he tried to confront the Left’s nostalgia for the 60s and uncritical emulation of kinds of protest that are now futile.

It tried to re-create the 60s: Schlingensief in a Dutschke wig inciting people to go into the theatre, then out again for a protest, a love-in in the theatre…It inquired into the leftist mythology of Rudi Dutschke [assassinated leader of the West German student movement in the 1960s], seriously asking: is anything like this still possible, or are we all postmodern super-cynics and resistance no longer imaginable?

He really targeted the Left’s idealism: ‘We’ll still find the working class, who will revolt and take over.’ He wasn’t interested in that sentiment. You could absolutely not describe him as a leftist in those terms. He was an anarchic spirit, whose line was one of inquiry.

In your book cinematographer Sandra Umathum reflects very personally on what it meant to experience Rocky Dutschke ‘68.

The difficulty of writing about Schligensief’s work is that it was different every night. He throws dramaturgy overboard, gets rid of previously made agreements with the actors; he will on the spur of the moment upturn the whole thing. Key sections may remain—or maybe not! Schlingensief’s theatre work was not fuelled by a great love of theatre, of wanting to follow in Brecht or Grotowski’s footsteps. He was experimenting with theatre like a child with plasticine. What can you do with this? He was interested in the way theatre was never finished, but happened anew each night.

Rocky Dutschke ‘68 was the first performance in which Schlingensief used non-professional performers, a practice he continued throughout his career: people with disabilities, the homeless. In Hamlet in 2001 he conscripted a bunch of reformed neo-Nazi youths. He was not interested in the ‘show me your wounds’ approach in which we turn up to be compassionate. The audience is not allowed complacency.

He was not doing it to elevate the status of a minority, but to get to the core of societal problems—and not in a linear or simple, causal way. People forget how turbulent Germany was in the 90s. Moving the capital back to Berlin, the ‘media chancellor’ Gerhard Schroeder, then the bombing of Belgrade, the first time German troops were employed since WWII. Germany was outraged: this happened under a red-green government! Then the ongoing reunification debate: will we become the great nation of fascists again? All these things swirling around, as if in a washing-machine. And that is how these productions looked: like questions, with actors representing contemporary politicians, with references to the Nazi past…but always as this “past that will not pass.”

Was he an heir of Brecht in that sense?

Yes—the audience had to sit there and critically engage with their own society and socio-political problems, because he wasn’t telling them what to think.

PASSION IMPOSSIBLE, 1997

Passion Impossible was an inquiry into the city of Hamburg. Schlingensief was invited to create a work at the Deutsches Schau-spielhaus in Hamburg, Germany’s largest theatre [whose production Pornography was presented at Melbourne Interntional Arts Festival in 2010].

At that time, Hamburg station, which sits opposite the theatre, was literally a camp for the homeless and drug users. To get to the theatre, you had to step over their bodies. Schlingensief was essentially a moralist and found this situation unbearable. He first suggested to the administration they tear down the facade of the theatre and turn around the seats, to face the theatre across the road, the theatre of misery. The theatre rejected the proposal ‘for technical problems.’ Instead, they agreed to sponsor a benefit gala, to raise money for a mission.

The seven-day event Schlingensief staged was a mission in the former police station down the road and a series of mass events in public space. You had him standing outside the theatre in a policeman’s jacket with a megaphone, encouraging the theatre patrons to “come away from this ugly bunker! There’s nothing in here for you!” Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, he would encourage people, having bought their ticket, to leave the building and come to the mission, which was a real mission—with beds and a soup kitchen. Here they had an open mike, a small stage and people could speak about whatever they wanted. He had an accordion player, the Salvation Army band, people singing songs…All sorts of little moments of what could be called entertainment.

Was this real or just a provocation?

It wasn’t clearly outlined. The theatre had publicised the event. The audience would buy tickets, then walk 200 metres up the road to the mission. You were paying to be involved with the people you would normally completely ignore, would never encounter in your daily life, or could have easily dealt with for free!

Participating in it was a provocation to oneself. Some of the stories of the homeless people were just awful. Early on, at the benefit gala, Schlingensief appeared with a decrepit battery chicken, and asked: “I want to see how much money can be raised to save the neck of this chicken!” People in the audience started protesting but he said, “We eat these chickens every day. What do you care about its life? I want to know how far people will go. We’re all addicted” — addicted to one’s own sense of doing good, of being a good citizen. We responded to the phone call, turned up at the benefit gala, did our little bit, even if otherwise we don’t really care. But now we’re really worried about the chicken!

But the main provocation was to the Lord Mayor by getting the citizens to eventually march up to the Town Hall, asking for the mission to continue. It became permanent.

I found Passion Impossible fascinating because it took it right out onto the streets. It is not dissimilar to Augusto Boal’s invisible theatre. There was a lot of media around. Questions were asked: Is he serious? Is this a charity campaign? Is it performance? Of course, it was all these things. And it evolved into an actual campaign, which he couldn’t have planned in the beginning. The work really asks: can art do something that politics can’t, create impetus for change? It questions our idea that artists can at best be pranksters. This is very different from watching The Chaser boys having a good time.

PLEASE LOVE AUSTRIA, 2000

I remember the reverberations from Please Love Austria (2000) as it made news throughout Europe that summer. There were riots!

2000 was the year when the liberal Austrian government became the only one since WWII to form a coalition with a far-right populist party, FPÖ, led by Jörg Haider. Sanctions were imposed on Austria. All of Europe was aware of Haider’s anti-immigrant campaigns.

Schlingensief was invited to create a work for the Vienna Festival. It was planned that shipping containers would be placed in the centre of town, on the Opera Square. These containers would be the living quarters for 12 asylum seekers for a period of seven days. Inside were webcams streaming to a website and Austrian citizens were encouraged to vote out their least favourite inhabitant, who would be taken to the border and deported. The winner would get 35,000 schillings and the possibility of becoming an Austrian resident by marriage. It followed the Big Brother format, which had just appeared.

It was only when Schlingensief, opening the show, revealed a large banner on the container, which said “Foreigners Out.” that it stopped being a game, or even funny. This is a well-known right-wing slogan: “Germany for Germans, Foreigners Out.” Jaws dropped. It attracted growing attention. People were coming through town for the festival and Schlingensief was there with a megaphone, exhorting tourists to take photos: “This is the future of Europe, this is Austria, send this to your friends at home, dear Japanese, dear Americans!” Austrians were shocked: “Besmirching our country!” Schlingensief kept publicly inviting Jörg Haider to meet with the asylum seekers—involving him in the performance, in absentia. The national boulevard press, the Kronen-Zeitung, were writing every day: “This Schlingensief clown is costing you money, dear readers.” Schlingensief retorted that they were just writing the program notes to his event.

The Left were campaigning against Jörg Haider. They saw the “Foreigners Out” banner simply as a provocation, accusing Schlingensief of misusing asylum seekers for his project. They marched around the container, demanding that he set those inside free, showing mind-boggling naivety — these were real asylum seekers, all with cases pending.

In the end they stormed the container.

Jumped on the roof, destroyed the banner, demanded a meeting. The asylum seekers had to be evacuated. The protesters then realised these were real asylum seekers and had to question their own activities. When they finally left, Schlingensief raised the ante by putting up an SS slogan that had been used by an FPÖ member: “Loyalty is our Honour.”

In that moment, it was as if Schlingensief reminded everyone that we were watching an art performance and that the real issue was only being represented. It questioned the efficacy of removing a symbol as a political action.

The Left-Right binary looked pathetic. The Right couldn’t take down the sign and government officials taking down an artwork would look pretty stupid. On the other hand, leftist protesters, making insane demands, weren’t effective either. Set the asylum seekers free — for what? Where?

The show wasn’t so much about the asylum seekers. Austria was televised around the world—the theatre was the Austrians, watching each other perform. Whatever happened, Schlingensief incorporated it into the work. That was the fun aspect of it. He didn’t have to rise to the bait or argue that this was a serious piece of political art. He would say: “I’m just repeating what Haider has been saying.”

Kerstin Grassmann, "Kandy" Mamounata Guira, Amando Komi in Christoph Schlingensief's award winning 2010 work Via Intolleranza. Photo: Aino Laberenz.

Slavoj Žižek calls this “radical overidentification”— an artistic position where you critique by overstating, by taking a claim to its absolute extreme to reveal its ugly possibilities.

Please Love Austria was a perfect example — the asylum seekers being forced to learn German, do callisthenics… It’s not as if Austria changed when the project left. That didn’t see the end of the coalition. But it showed how art can be directly involved in events of the day, in a very radical way.

In the book you point out the connection between Schlingensief’s work and the neo-avant-garde of the 1950s. You write about “an art practice that emerges from the social sphere—and that develops out of the active, creative participation of the viewer.”

The comparison with happenings is not wrong — everyday life, spontaneity, experiments. Schlingensief didn’t start something with a blueprint of how it should end, but set it in motion like a wind-up toy, to see where it goes. In Germany he is often considered the inheritor of the legacy of Joseph Beuys. Beuys’ discussions, definitions, ideas—of social sculpture, of an expanded form of art — Schligensief co-opted for his own ideas on an expanded form of theatre. Getting rid of the fourth wall, people leaving the theatre for the streets. That became really clear in 1998, when he ran his own political party in the German election.

Christoph Schlingensief (right), Chance 2000—Vote for Yourself (1998). Photo © Aino Laberenz.

CHANCE 2000—VOTE FOR YOURSELF, 1998

It started off with an event at the Volksbuehne. Schlingensief had a circus performance set up in a tent—the “electoral circus.” But at the same time, he started his own media campaign on national television about Chance 2000 – Vote For Yourself (1998). He was encouraging the disabled and the unemployed to run as political candidates. “None of these people in the Bundestag represent you. The idea that you will be represented by someone else your whole life is ridiculous—you have to prove you exist. Get involved in starting your own campaign.”

He toured Germany in a bus, campaigning non-stop. It wasn’t a completely serious attempt to form a political party. He would say, “Unlike all other politicians running in this election, the only promise I am going to make is that everyone will be bitterly disappointed.” Then he decided that the people who joined the party were too boring, left it and set up the Schlingensief Party. He wouldn’t let those he rejected into his new tent, but after two days they reunited. A very clever German reviewer commented that Schlingensief gave us a short run-through of democracy in a week. Parties, factions, reuniting, splitting up, another leader emerging, and all happening with such a turbulent tempo!

Germany was baffled: vote for yourself? Is he lampooning the election? The party got 30,000 votes. But the idea wasn’t that they would take over the Bundestag, but rather “prove you exist.” In this world, where the only voices we hear are those of rich politicians, who are these faceless unemployed people, apparently numbering six million? He was demanding you make yourselves visible in a world that’s trying to erase you.

There was a lovely offshoot action of Chance 2000. Schlingensief announced that the six million unemployed would join him to jump into a lake, Wolfgangsee, where Helmut Kohl’s villa is, to raise the water level, flood Kohl out and give him cold feet. The police were sent to the village, all sorts of preparations were in place. Schlingensief turned out with about 300 people. But Kohl ‘participated,’ against his will, in a performance. It doesn’t really matter if it did or didn’t happen. People saw the clips, it was national news that there hadn’t been 6 million people, only 300.

Schlingensief really understood the sound-byte world we’re living in—he created a mythology around the work, pretending things would go further than they actually could, and were bigger than they actually were.

How did Schlingensief’s work fit into the German theatre context? I remember when Denise Varney [Theatre Studies, University of Melbourne] showed a clip from Please Love Austria in class there was incredible consternation about whether such an action was legal or not. In Germany, Schlingensief reached the status of a star. He directed an opera for the Bayreuth Wagner festival. He was not living in a live art ghetto, the way one would expect here.

Events such as the one he staged in the election campaign of 1998 made him nationally prominent, while internationally it was Please Love Austria. He became the biggest name in art in Germany. After years of people saying it wasn’t real theatre, the fact that he wasn’t going away and was finally invited to direct Parsifal at the shrine of Wagner in Bayreuth, meant that he was finally accepted. On the other hand, he never became an intendant of a theatre — people didn’t trust him on that level. But after he contracted cancer, when he was only 47, he released a book—his cancer diary, titled Heaven Can’t Be More Beautiful Than Here — and it became a bestseller.

SHOCKED PATIENTS

He started a website, Shocked Patients (www.geschockte-patienten.org). The first thing he found out as a cancer patient is that you lose all autonomy. People start shoving tubes into you, no one talks to you, they talk over you. You are again erased. He created a forum for people diagnosed with terminal diseases, cancer and ALS [amyotropic lateral sclerosis] to write about their experiences, to have their own voice.

He had previously created a performance called Art and Vegetables (2004) at the Volksbuehne, in which, centrestage, was a woman with ALS, in bed, able to write messages by blinking at a computer screen. The woman, Angela Jansen, was quoted in the program, saying, “I’ve got everything I need, it’s just that I can’t move.” He used that as a reference to German society of the time. The woman now became the forum moderator.

It’s not as if he avoided scandal, he sought the media, did things knowing they would provoke a reaction—saying unkind things about Lady Di, for example. But there is also his metaphorical language: “Jump into the lake and give Kohl cold feet,” or relating physical sickness to a social sickness and lethargy.

One of the reasons it’s hard to talk about Schlingensief’s work is because he covers so many forms: happening, performance, theatre, film, activism, politics. It’s hard to sum up his work. One motif is, perhaps, visibility, the other is putting himself in his work. And particularly interesting to me, in these times of complete social inertia — I’m thinking Australia now — is his idea of movement, getting out of torpor and lethargy. He often took to the streets with groups of people. “Move! It doesn’t matter where we’re going. I don’t even need a plan.” No need for direction – you just move. “We’ll figure it out as we go.”

Tara Forrest and Anna Teresa Scheer eds, Art Without Borders, Intellect Books, 2010; www.intellectbooks.co.uk

First published in RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 24-25.

Note: I am particularly proud of this article, which is, to my knowledge, the first mention of Christoph Schlingensief in the Australian media, arts or otherwise. Schlingensief is without a doubt one of the most important theatre artists of the 20th century, and the publication of Scheer’s book was an important occasion, not just in Australia, but worldwide.

Anna Teresa was a fantastic interlocutor. I cut my questions down to the bare minimum, giving most of the space to her, to describe the importance and social impact of Schlingensief’s work. Even so, the article ran at twice the word-length commissioned.

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[pro-player type=”MP4″]http://monocle.dl.groovygecko.com/d/vienna_.mp4[/pro-player]

When I was in the UK in mid-2010, the most interesting new development for me was the strange respect of Polish people that the Brits seemed to have found themselves in, seemingly by accident. This seemed to hinge largely on the high quality of plumbing performed by Polish plumbers; and the abundance of Polish plumbing, in return, seemed to be the most tangible evidence of borders-opening-to-new-EU-members. More precisely: the end of the 7-year moratorium on people-movement from the ex-socialist, Eastern-European, mostly-Slavic, and in all other ways intrinsically inferior European countries, and into the historically-capitalist, Western-European, Germanic-and-Mediterranean, and in all other ways intrinsically superior European countries.

When the EU expanded, such Western Europeans were all aflurry at the cheap and nasty labour that would pour in. Online sources are a bit hard to find so many years into the past, but look at this sample from the BBC News:

“This is being driven by business which wants mass cheap labour. As a worker I do not want cheap competition.”

“Now the citizens of current EU countries have to give serious to consideration to whether or not they want to spend the rest of their lives funding a crazy scheme to integrate the rich, poor and even poorer nations of Europe. I know I don’t. Given individual nations’ failure to do this domestically it doesn’t seem to be feasible on a continental scale.”

“Full membership is going to be a hopeless disaster. There are more farmers in Poland than there are in all the current members of the EU put together. There will have to be a massive redistribution of wealth of Polish farmers and there will be riots on the streets of France, Spain and Italy when these countries find out what’s at stake.”

“Surely this is just going to create a tide of economic migration from poorer East European counties to the west. Who is going to pick up the tab for their benefits? The British tax payer I suppose! I am totally against it!”

“If people are already angry about asylum seekers, then they ain’t seen nothing yet!”

“I definitely welcome new countries to the EU, but not until these countries can offer as much economically back to the member states, as the member states offer to the applicant. After all the EU is not a charity.”

All of these, not by design, come from commentators from the UK (citizens of other countries made more moderate comments and generally refrained from bringing in labour cost). Around 2004, when the 7-year period was ending, The Guardian was warning that “Downing Street must not surrender to xenophobic arguments over a feared influx of eastern European immigrants”. The German BPD was diagnosing public fears such: “75% of Germans surveyed expected unemployment to rise following the accession of the Central and Eastern European states; only 28% welcomed the expansion. In France, the ‘Polish plumber’ became a symbol for a perceived threat to the national labour market due to EU expansion, a perception that helped fuel France’s rejection of the EU Constitution in May 2005”. And, travelling around the EU in 2004 and 2005, I did not exactly feel welcome and respected.

But how the tables turn! Come UK in 2010, and everyone seemed as surprised as I was that they had so much praise for the Polish plumber (PP having become, by then, the synecdoche for all East-to-West European intramigration). The underlying attitude seemed to be of genuine surprise (not some bleeding-heart trying) and mild reluctance, but also general relief that life could be good. Apparently this had started in 2005, straight after the people-moving ban was lifted (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C), continued throughout 2006 (Exhibit D), when it was linked to rising prosperity. By 2008, the return-migration of Poles was a worry (Exhibit E), in 2010 their return interpreted as sign of fat cows around the corner (Exhibit F) – or just a good thing in and of itself, and even when Eastern-European-directed racism awoke again, in 2011, Polish plumbers were singled out and mercifully exempt Exhibit G). Indeed, businesses now market themselves as Polish.

Why? Because they seemed to have introduced into Britain, that first of industralising nations, the sense that a manual job could be well done, with skill and professional pride.

“I feel humbled to have temporarily had at my service one of this country’s 95 Polish plumbers.” wrote Peter Dobbie (Exhibit A) in 2005. “In Britain today, the Polish plumber is seen by mortgage payers as something of a hero. He – I have yet to come across a she – is like a resistance fighter, parachuted into occupied France during the Second World War, nurtured and passed from safe house to safe house. The Polish plumber I employed was quick and efficient. He found the cause of the pong that hung around the outer drains of chez moi. He was cheap and did not make me feel that he was doing me a favour by just turning up at the promised time. He left a card which gave a first name and a mobile telephone number. I would not hesitate to pass him on to the next victim of blocked drains or broken central heating.”

“They are coming in and making a very good reputation as highly skilled, highly motivated workers,” said Christopher Thompson (Exhibit B), a diplomat at the British Embassy in Warsaw, in 2005.

“It is hard to go a week without reading an article about the army of Polish workers becoming a shining success story in construction and home repairs.” wrote The Guardian (Exhibit C)

During my 2010 visit, even the cause of this plumbing excellence was identified. Everyone told me the same thing. “It’s because they have apprenticeships, in Poland.”

An apprenticeship in Poland is the same as in Austria (see video): 3 years of work placement, with 1-2 days of academic study a week, after the age of 15 or 16. This is precisely the sort of system Britain abandoned after the de-industrialisation of the 1970s and the 1980s (because the financial services made so much more money, remember?), and that countries like Australia possibly never had – see previous writing on Australian attitudes to jobs-well-done, or inspect the quality of craft on any house built 1787-2011. An apprenticeship of this sort is a serious commitment, and out of it comes a professional pride. Many semi-academic high schools and universities, from architecture and graphic design to hospitality and technical sciences, work as essentially highly-skilled technical schools. My little sister, who is about to graduate from an applied arts’ high school, is essentially learning a trade. That is fine, and there is no loss of status associated. (Here I am reminded of a conversation I had with my Australian ex-husband, long ago, on the subject of children and our parental expectations. While I was claiming to be a liberal future parent, he asked: “But what if your child said they don’t want to go to university?” This caused me great confusion at the time, while I was trying to understand what he meant by the question, and why this was parental anathema. I myself was considering a TAFE at the time, before I realised how little they were respected in Australia.)

In contrast, according to The Daily Mail in 2006:
“Mr Kosniowski, one of the original Polish community in Southampton, says: “We supply skilled workers rather than labourers because there is a shortage. A lot of young British people are not interested in trades or apprenticeships. The problem is that the emphasis in this country was on getting young people educated rather than skilled.” It is a sad truth that apprenticeships fell out of favour in Britain in the Seventies and Eighties when the manufacturing industries shed jobs and the construction industry went into decline.”

(Long aside: the specifically British attitude to manual work, which is respected on the level of product (especially if foreign) but not on the level of person, is a class-related attitude, and is quite probably the reason why Britain, among other things, has such awfully poor-quality food. While Australia is supposedly free of class hangovers, its own attitude to craftsmanship reveals basically the same set of problems. In most European countries there is a certain recognition that society is a complex system of inter-dependence, which leads to a respect for the waitress, the coffee-maker, the plumber, the farmer, the baker and so on, and results in a number of structural supports to the art of waiting tables, baking bread, etc – fiscal, educational, migration, and so on. (Read Michael Symons’ One Continuous Picnic: a gastronomic history of Australia to find out, among other things, how a cascade of contradictory laws, introduced in the first half of the 20th century, decimated the small bakers of Australia. This is a kind of gross negligence that speaks of societal values.)

Perhaps Britain is permeated with an aristocratic-wannabe snobbery towards manual work, as this wealth of literature suggests. But poor-settler countries like Australia, Canada, the US, more insidiously, feature a kind of delusion that we can all somehow be a civic middle class, which in the collective psyche translates into white-collar, and perfect equality and prosperity-for-all would somehow mean literally freeing everyone from the need to fix objects, grow food, milk cows, make machinery, and so on. Again, if this seems like a caricature, picture yourself the billion suburban houses built in these countries in the past century or so, all little manors in little parks, or houses with gardens that are not used for growing food even if that is the single most appropriate use for a small house garden. Or the idea of university for everyone, which eventually leads to the loss of manual skills such as those promulgated through apprenticeships. In other words, if you put ideas of equality on top of a very strong class culture, this weird homogeneity appears in the idea of what everyone should be like: instead of respect for all kinds (or classes) of labour, the society tries to get everyone to fit into one labour class. And even when the practical need for lost skills is then reasserted, it gets reappraised in a strangely semiotised way – as an image of longing for a fantasy – so that growing your own food/milking your own cow/building your own house comes to stand for suburban middle class par excellence. Which is to say, if good plumbing ever rises to an actually-appreciated craft, in places like the UK, Canada and Australia it is more likely to result in suburban hipsters opening boutique plumbing businesses than in a structural access to apprenticeships for all high-school leavers.)

In any case, there has (especially since the GFC) been a lot of brouhaha in the UK about re-introducing apprenticeships (Exhibit H, Exhibit I, Exhibit J, and even in The Daily Mail Exhibit K).

For all these reasons, the Monocle video podcast above is very interesting – as is Monocle’s general abundant coverage of craftsmanship. As Hugo McDonald, the Monocle Design editor, says in the clip above:

Beyond creating a workforce that continues to produce beautiful things, the apprenticeship system fosters a social attitude of respect between generations, attention to detail, and an ability to make, do and mend almost anything. At a grassroots level, it is these qualities that keep a country intact.