Quick access:

Go directly to content (Alt 1) Go directly to first-level navigation (Alt 2)

Editorial by Peter Weibel
Democracy needs thinking – how we learn to rethink in a digital world

exhibition experiment „Open Codes“, 2017/ 2018
Peter Weibel discusses with citizens at the exhibition experiment "Open Codes". | Photo: Anne-Sophie Stolz © ZKM Karlsruhe

In the future we will need digitally sovereign and culturally competent citizens. Because democracy needs thinking! That is why Peter Weibel, artistic-scientific director of the ZKM Karlsruhe, calls for new educational, social and democratic movements to be initiated and for museums to become places of free citizenship education.

By Peter Weibel

As for the current state of democracy, the titles of recent books speak volumes, literally: Post-Democracy (Colin Crouch, 2004), Defekte Demokratie [Defective democracy] (Wolfgang Merkel, Hans-Jürgen Puhle, Aurel Croissant et al., 2003), Simulative Demokratie [Simulative democracy] (Ingolfur Blühdorn, 2013). It is obvious that the previous forms of democracy and education are now so weakened that they no longer fulfill their mission and the expectations placed in them. All over Germany there are complaints that there is a state of emergency in the education system. The evidence is overwhelming that representative democracy is in crisis. It is imperative that new forms of democracy and education should be developed and tried out.

Contemporary art especially in museums

Strangely enough, the museum is an ideal location for this. Why? Because the museum has been a heterotopia now for a long time, a location for exiles – at least as regards artistic forms of expression. The Sound art of the twenty-first century is not heard or seen in the majestic buildings for opera and classical music, but rather (from time to time) in museums. Art films were forced to flee the cinema and television and go into exile in the museum. Likewise, new forms of dance, Action art, and performance are mainly on view in art spaces. The utopian momentum of a society, in so far as it is reflected in art, now only remains latent in exhibition spaces. At given moments in history, this latency expands from artistic models into social models. 

It is now time to initiate new democratic, social and education policy movements, even if only at a micropolitical level. Experimental spaces for innovative democratic possibilities, new forms of acquiring knowledge, and a new type of entrepreneurship which is based on new forms of cooperation must be created.

Change Into a knowledge society

The key to an emancipatory concept lies in empowering the citizens and in their community. For our exhibition and educational experiment Open Codes (October 2017 to April 2019), for example, we have chosen an unusual, interactive mode of engaging with art introduces them to this new strategy of an assembly. The museum becomes a location for civic education, where acquisition of knowledge is not only worthwhile, but also rewarded. For the actual message of digital change is: the society of tomorrow will change (will have to change) into the knowledge society.

Therefore, we demand paid citizens’ education for the twenty-first century! We shall need culturally competent citizens in order to defend democracy in the future. For is any thinking going on at all in the political arena or the mass media? Isn’t a trash president the ultimate triumph of trash TV? Sadly, we have gotten used to the voice of reason not being heard, because, as Sigmund Freud said, “The voice of the intellect is a soft one”.
Peter Weibel, Artistic-Scientific Director ZKM Karlsruhe Peter Weibel is artistic-scientific Director at ZKM Karlsruhe | Photo: Andy Ridder © ZKM Karlsruhe

But what is new is that the voice of reality is not heard either. When a phone rings in the government’s offices in Berlin and the reply to the secretary’s question “Who’s calling?” is “The voice of reality,” the politicians shout unisono “Don’t pick up the phone!” This is why Germany has become a dysfunctional democratic republic. Administration specialists talk increasingly of organization failure with fatal consequences for people.Functionality is no longer the norm, but the exception. Above all because there is a lack of real-time data management

We need new knowledge formats on the web

On the European Digitization Index Germany is ranked 17th, that is, it is a “developing country” in terms of digitization. Striving to retain power at all costs and ideological blindness have led to reality being sidestepped. Thus, not only the museum, as a new form of assembly, has the opportunity – together with the citizens – to develop as a site of knowledge and empowerment.  With the instruments of thought and new forms of education – above all through new mediation formats on the Net – it can be possible to regain access to reality.


Peter Weibel (*1944) is regarded as a central actor in European media art. As an artist, theorist, curator, artistic-scientific chairman of the ZKM Karlsruhe and director of the “Peter Weibel Research Institute for Digital Cultures” at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, he works at the interface of art and science. He has directed the Biennale in Seville and Moscow, the Ars Electronica in Linz and the Institute for New Media at the Städelschule in Frankfurt.