Germany is haunted by a Poltergeist: A Berlin-based international group of activists hounds cliques and corporations that deemed themselves safe from grassroots protests.
Boom! Bang! The wide-eyed audience looks around frantically. What just happened? – In Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theatre, shock is the element that makes the stage freeze in time and forces the viewer to react to what (s)he is seeing. The scene comes to a halt – tableau! Now, what do you see? The Peng! Collective, a group of political activists and action artists, is the embodiment of that sudden, startling blast that dissolves into laughter, and yet leaves audiences shaken.
Re-cast the roles
Some years ago, Paul von Ribbeck stood pondering before the lethargic mass that is our civil society. Political life was swooshing around languidly while storms were raging high above the waters. And while the spectacle of the media shoots out news ever faster, ever more vividly through its various channels, demonstrations, rallies and petitions usually seem quite docile. Of course, there are exceptions, even successful referenda. But this sort of protest fails to challenge unscrupulous corporations, and the lethargy of the masses often reduces ‘Us, the People’ to spectators. Von Ribbeck came to the conclusion that the roles we play must urgently be re-cast.
He’s not only a political scientist, but also a trained clown. He therefore knows how spectators can turn into performers. Together with other self-proclaimed rebels, he turns the tables by creating fictional corporations: The satirical Horst Köhler Consulting firm delivers on certain unfortunate statements by the former German Federal President by offering consulting services for military interventions to benefit German exports; the ruthlessly honest Agrarprofit (agrarian profit) sells “guaranteed union-free” bananas at unbeatable prices.
Hijacking the stage
When Shell hosted a Science Slam in Berlin, activist von Ribbeck made use of his good connections. In record time, he and some biologist and physicist friends developed an outrageous concept for a motor that does not emit, but rather absorbs carbon dioxide, cleaning the air instead of polluting it. The bogus concept actually earned the ‘inventors’ an invitation to Shell to present their wondrous work. They had only two weeks to prepare their performance.
Without any notable financial funding, yet with the creativity and know-how of diverse contributors, the miracle motor made it onto the stage: Yet instead of clean air, a jet of oil came shooting out of the engine, covering the venue in a greasy oil carpet. Von Ribbeck eventually unplugged the contraption, informing his perplexed audience that “you can’t do that in the Arctic” - where Shell was planning to drill soon. Afterwards, a video of the event got more than 100,000 views online. The stunt was a success: The young people managed to hijack a stage built by a global corporation and repurpose it as a platform for their criticism.
Masquerade, Impact, Disobedience
That was in December of 2013. “In hindsight,” says philosopher Lia Rea, who first spent some time on the periphery of the group and has now become one of its core members, “this was the founding event of the Peng! Collective.” They decided to initiate activities like this one more frequently and came up with the name Peng!, under which the network branched out further. Rea says: “We don’t know how many we are, and even if we did, we wouldn’t tell.” Because if they were a clearly defined group, they would lose some of their impact with each performance. If their faces were to become widely known, nobody would be fooled anymore, and the performance would end before the activists would even reach the stage. Even in this article, names are fake and Piotr, Lia, Paul and Gloria are conspiratorial fictional characters. But you may know this much: There are circles of associated members around a core group of ten people. They contribute expertise and experience from the fields of media design, journalism, environmental activism, theatre tech or technology. For each event, they congregate a powerful team.
“We are a research platform for protest movements,” Rea summarises their self-concept. Peng! experiments with subversive elements that are not altogether new – culture jamming, guerrilla communication and other tried and tested forms of civil disobedience. Advertisements and media formats are being re-interpreted and caricatured; their high level of exposure is used to turn them against themselves. The idea to use these methods in a performance-based way was inspired by the U.S. group The Yes Men, who have gained international fame.
The spirit of real-life corporations
Since they crossed paths at the 2014 Re:publica conference, the Peng! Collective and The Yes Men have been allies. Peng! members presented the fictitious project Google Nest, confronting an outraged audience of internet activists with alleged Google programs that seemed to push unshiftable moral boundaries. There it was again: the element of shock! Subsequently, the real-life version of the Google corporation deleted the fake website from its search index, thereby unveiling that it is in fact quite willing to use its power for its own benefit.
In its latest feat, Peng! summoned the press to the Berlin headquarters of Vattenfall in order to proclaim, in the guise of a corporate spokesman, that the Swedish energy corporation assumed responsibility for the brown coal pits in the Lausitz region and would immediately start re-naturalising them in the context of a “responsibility initiative”, thus saving jobs in the region. After the bogus press conference, Vattenfall proper went to great pains to communicate that its seeming goodwill was a prank, distancing itself from this vision for a better future.
“We want to sharpen the teeth of civil society,” says Lia Rea, and what she means is that her group wants to trigger critical debates. And their previous interventions did indeed succeed in this endeavour. Peng! activities are always speed lessons in cheekiness, teaching the public to shed its false respect for seemingly daunting machineries. It will be a blast!