CHRISTOPH SCHLINGENSIEF (1960–2010), who began his career in Germany as an obscure director of avant-garde cinematic spectacles, ended it as an internationally known performance artist who was memorialized by the Austrian Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek as “one of the greatest artists who ever lived” (Der Standard, Faz.net). This transition from being a minor filmmaker known for cult titles like Das deutsche Kettensägenmassaker (The German Chainsaw Massacre, 1990) to being the darling of not only the leftist art scene but also the populist tabloid BILD was due in no small part to his work's direct confrontation with questions of social justice and democracy.
While Schlingensief's cinematic works reflected on experimental film traditions and techniques, as well as pathologies of the family and the (German) nation, the stage pieces and Aktionen of his midcareer were often devoted explicitly to bringing attention to socially marginalized groups like the homeless, mentally or terminally ill, unemployed, asylum seekers, or immigrants. Like the visual metaphor contained in this volume's title, most of this engagement took the form not of concrete political proposals but rather of envisioning more inclusive forms of media and spectatorship, often by means of jarring or unsettling juxtapositions of conventional genre categories. If social justice can be conceived of in terms of a Hegelian “struggle for recognition” (to borrow the title of Axel Honneth's work on Hegel), Schlingensief revised this concept for the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries by disrupting the “normal” processes by which groups such as the mentally ill, homeless, or disabled are recognized in the media. Many of his actions questioned the ethics and viability of contemporary representation (and, hence, recognition) of marginalized social groups.
This commitment to visibility for others was marked, however, by a central paradox, in that Schlingensief was also clearly engaged in a “struggle for recognition” of a more personal sort. From his histrionic stage debut (described below) until his final performance pieces, the artist's personal presence was integral to nearly every performance. Furthermore, both Schlingensief and scholars who discuss his works frequently present his biography and family background as interpretive keys. Throughout his career, Schlingensief projected (perhaps deliberately) the persona of a Peter Pan–like figure who refused to grow up—maintaining, for instance, his signature youthful hairstyle long after his hair had turned gray.