How to deal with the dark sides of institutional histories, with ambiguous stories in times that demand simple answers? A moralistic turn in the artistic field and public opinion dominated by a culture of outrage requires new forms of institutional development. Castrum Peregrini can serve as an illustration of how institutionally established profiles, narratives and approaches are challenged today and could be developed in a critically inclusive manner towards a contact zone that provides for multiple ethical memories.
The case study Castrum Peregrini
Castrum Peregrini is a cultural centre in a 17th century building in the historic canal district of Amsterdam, where a small community had survived Nazi persecution. During the occupation it went by the code name of Castrum Peregrini. In 1940 Gisèle van Waterschoot van der Gracht (1912-2013), an Austrian/Dutch stained-glass artist and painter, had offered her apartment at the Amsterdam Herengracht canal to a small group of youngsters around the exiled German Wolfgang Frommel (1902-1986), a poet and radio journalist strongly influenced by the life and work of Stefan George. Two of his Jewish friends had to go into hiding in Gisèle’s apartment that offered shelter from 1942 until the liberation in 1945.
After the war the group spread out across Europe but returned in the early 1950s on Gisèle’s invitation. Wolfgang Frommel started a publishing house with the magazine Castrum Peregrini, in the same building, and the small group established a Bloomsbury-kind-of alternative family with all its utopian enthusiasm and productiveness as well as with its negative aspects. Recent historic research has shown that the concept of “pedagogical eros” represented by Wolfgang Frommel as the centre of the group have also provided the ground for sexual abuse. This complex history makes the house a place where lives have been saved and inspired but also lives have been damaged.
The following reflections purposefully leave aside the trauma of witnesses. Working with the history of Castrum Peregrini has shown that embodied pain, humiliation and sorrow (of those that have experienced abuse, but also, in another form, those who feel that their positive identification with the memory of e.g. Wolfgang Frommel is violently taken from them), as well as all forms and shades of pain require not only recognition and broad empathy, but individual attention and support, which this article cannot offer.
Our cultural identification and our need for clarity
For Zygmunt Bauman ambiguity seemed the only power that is able to mitigate the destructive, genocidal potential of modernity (Bauman, 1993). The problem is that human nature pushes us to avoid situations that are ambiguous, vague or unclear (Bauer, 2018). In a world that seems to get more complex with every day, our intolerance for ambiguity creates dilemmas, for which the discussion around identity politics of the last years is a good example. If we think in terms of identity “boxes”, we have to deal with an ever-growing number of boxes that have the purpose to get grip on a complex situation. Kenan Malik is strait forward in this: the world is a messy place, get to terms with it (Malik, 2017). This reads like a passionate plea for ambiguity. From the Netherlands Gloria Wekker advocates for intersectional thinking, which replaces the boxes by looking at different axes (race, gender, class etc.) that in each individual form a specific intersectional profile of one’s dynamic identity (Wekker, 2016). As plausible and even pragmatic as this approach may be, cultural identification seems to still demand the unambiguous story. Conversations about who we are – as an institution, a nation or a continent – are governed by the need for more simplicity. Complexity and fragmentation feel threatening and trigger an instinct that strives for safety. Unambiguous, clear announcements feel safe. Demarcation lines feel safe. Knowing who is in and who is out feels safe. Aleida Assmann calls this the “monologic approach” which is dominant vs. the “dialogic approach”, that does in the end offer much more possibilities (Assmann, 2015).
Talking about history in times of identity politics is a precarious endeavour. Dutch minister for Education, Culture and Science Ingrid van Engelshoven announced in June 2019 that the Dutch Canon is in need for revision. Especially her request to pay attention to stories and perspectives of various and diverse parts of society and specifically to give enough space to the shadow-parts of Dutch history triggered a controversial debate. “Shadows” refer for instance to war crimes of Dutch militaries in the Indonesian war (1945-50) or collaboration during Nazi occupation. Many reactions opposed this notion fiercely, especially from right wing nationalist politicians but also from the representative of Dutch history teachers that found one should not make the canon subject to ideology or fashion. The canon as it stands seems to fulfil the need for citizens to unambiguously identify in a positive way with a culture and its historic roots. But why can we not establish an ambiguous, dialogic relationship with history? Isn’t the negotiation, the dialogue about it, the struggle for it, what enables me to identify and belong? It is in this sense that ambiguity and ambivalence hold the real potential for creative and sustainable development of a society. The psychiatrist Christopher Baethge defines ambivalence as the simultaneous sensation of contradictory emotions, for instance when one is at the same time attracted and repelled by a person or a thing (Baethge, 2004).
I grew up with this ambivalence towards my own cultural identification, being educated in Germany between the Denkmal and the Mahnmal. Whereas both terms translate as “monument/memorial” the Denkmal commemorates a positive historic event or person, the Mahnmal commemorates traumatic events of e.g. genocide as a warning. Museums have the potential to fill the space in-between these positions. In the Netherlands there is a struggle to find the right tone of voice to accommodate the Mahnmal. Examples include the discussion around the holocaust name monument in Amsterdam or the discussion of renaming public spaces and institutions that hold names of persons that were once celebrated as heroes of the colonial past and that are now in the focus of attention because of the atrocities they have committed such as Coen and Witte de With.
Art and research in all their forms of expression (written, visual, performative, as well as conceptual and participatory, dialogical) create knowledge and access to a complex, ambiguous and multi-layered subject area.
It is a resonance body in which getting to terms with the past equals getting to terms with the future. In The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics, Jacques Rancière claims that we need a historic reference point to make ethical choices today. This used to be the future with the revolution, ongoing or to come. After the fall of the wall and ‘the end of history’ this positive – utopian – reference point in the future was replaced by one from the past, by the historic absolute evil, the holocaust. We may however find a performative position in-between those two perspectives that enable us to develop relevant ideas that impact today. If institutions define their values for a better future and apply critical scrutiny toward the past, they can create a field of tension in which creativity and dialogical encounter is facilitated.
Castrum Peregrini tried to provide this space with e.g. artist researchers such as Amie Dicke, Marijn Bax, Ronit Porat and most recently Renée Turner, who has transgressed the material archive of the place with her project the Warp and Weft of Memory. Turner takes the position of a witness. Her archival work in combination with creative processes and design thinking is captured in a database structure that combines the factual and the fictional, as a performative space between the past and the future. A dialogical reflection takes the form of an integrated epistolary.
The main mode of the historic interiors of Castrum Peregrini remains that of an archive, a laboratory for (artistic-)research and as a place of encounter, dialogue and performative thinking. Here the white cube gallery at Castrum Peregrini serves as the interface to “expose” outcomes to a critical public, as a membrane between the world and the archive.
With this approach of the house as an archive Castrum Peregrini has made a choice that is motivated by the complexity of its history, which cannot be simplified into an unambiguous message. It is this complexity that offers fruitful ground to reflect about our current societies, not open-ended but with societal values that the current generation of Castrum Peregrini have defined in an intensive participatory trajectory with their stakeholders: «We believe in a world in which everyone is equal, and everyone is offered equal opportunities. We want to make a small contribution to the dream of an inclusive society by instrumentalising our heritage as a laboratory and place of encounter and thinking about the society in which we want to live so that one day no one will need to hide again for what he or she is» (Mission Statement Castrum Peregrini). Our central research question in all that we do is thus: why must humans hide for what they are? Gisèle had reacted positively when Wolfgang Frommel asked her for help in 1942. His friends were threatened for what they were. Lives were threatened. In this helping act Gisèle found a new meaning in her life, a new home.
With the biography of Gisèle (Mooij, 2018), which is the outcome of 7 years of research that Castrum Peregrini had commissioned, and the open account of history it represents, Castrum Peregrini aimed at properly researching and making accessible the most important aspects of its history, including the traumatic ones.
Castrum Peregrini felt ready to work through the trauma heads on with public programmes, workshops and artistic research, with everyone that wanted to contribute. But this dialogic approach to “working through” was strongly opposed by a media outrage and a public opinion that made it clear that the mere witness of history as a basis for a dialogue was not enough. It lacked the clear and unambiguous moral judgement of good and bad, that would help the public to relate – or not! – to the story of Castrum Peregrini and their protagonists. Also, the dialogic approach did not support recognition of victims and their trauma. The question of guilt and justice was not resolved. Castrum Peregrini therefore constituted a commission chaired by retired judge Frans Bauduin that would investigate the abuse in the circle around Wolfgang Frommel until his death in 1986. Their report was published 6 May 2019.
The same day that the report was published all major Dutch newspapers covered the news. Reactions were mixed: from repetition of the previous outrage to more subtle reflections. Individual reactions in social media were mixed, too. Private messages primarily were very supportive towards the organisations efforts towards transparency and working through.
Castrum Peregrini recognises the victims and their stories and hopes the report is helpful to work through their trauma as well as the offers of support that are set out in it. With victims speaking out, their stories can gain a place in the memory of Castrum Peregrini.
Castrum Peregrini is determined to follow the recommendations in the report, although they pose some serious dilemmas: how can one work through traumatic history by making it disappear with changing the name Castrum Peregrini, getting rid of the books of Frommel and by “cleaning” Gisèles war time hiding apartment from his traces? These dilemmas are yet to be solved. Of course, physical memory of trauma is torturing for victims. At the same time the intrinsic link between tangible and intangible heritage can be a basis of working through trauma, and maybe that basis is even a conditio sine qua non for working through as such.
But ambiguous, negative, traumatic heritage, or – as in the case with the canon debate the ‘naming’ of negative heritage – so far mainly causes outrage, which prevents from really working through.
Episodes of outrage
In his column of 31 May 2019 in the Dutch national newspaper NRC Handelsblad Bas Heijne reflects on the public outrage in the aftermath of the documentary Neverland that had triggered a flood of reactions. «When does genuine involvement turn into ego tripping, narcissism disguised as engagement? In the case of Jackson: child abuse is terrible, a major social problem. But you don’t fight that through gestures that are more about you than about the problem itself. Even worse, your sense of injustice becomes an excuse to focus all your attention on yourself, to stir up the bonfire of your moral dismay before the eyes of the world» [translation LE].
A similar dynamic applied to Wolfgang Frommel and Castrum Peregrini. There is no doubt that sexual abuse is to be condemned. The outrage in the media about it however mainly focused on condemnation of something or someone today. In other words: it was not about historic guilt, todays shame and the question of how to recognize it and work through it towards a better future. It was replaced by the call for distance from such a past, cutting ties and “cleaning up”.
The voice of experts is hardly heard in this outrage. Trauma specialists, heritage and memory scholars, anthropologists or sociologists either don’t get the podium or stay silent in order not to compromise their work by making it vulnerable to furious attacks. They do speak in private but not in public, instead everyone else expresses an opinion.
Expressing your position loudly is especially important in the artworld where ethics are – quite rightly – in the centre of attention. Ethics are a crucial ingredient in the fight for a more inclusive and just representation of the world and a fairer distribution of resources and power, the power to identify and write culture. It is a struggle with natural entitlement and questioning privilege that comes with who you were born to be. If you then try to be on the good side of this struggle but you can physically be identified with the “wrong”, the dominant or suppressive side (e.g. white, male, heterosexual, cis-gender, middle-aged), it is all the more important to be very vocal about your position and thereby proof that you are on the good side of history. In a sense this is the opposite of self-censorship. Instead of not saying the forbidden one feels the need to say the correct things without any need for it.
The question is whether this primarily leads to judgement and moral positions rather than to the much-needed performative act of working through. “Performative” here refers to the viable middle position between theory and practice, where reflection, action and catharsis go hand in hand.
The Ethical Turn in art and culture in combination with the inability to work through traumatic colonial heritage in the Netherlands, has led to an offspring that we may call the Moralistic Turn, which requires new institutional strategies, yet to be developed. They are strategies that leave institutions an agency – to recognize and work through trauma for instance, without re-traumatisation of victims or whistle blowers and without creating opposition between recognizing pain from the past and finding ways of working into the future and playing a meaningful role in the communities an institution is situated in.
A real ethical discussion with and within institutions and their stakeholders would accommodate various standing points in a complex and ambiguous framework of needs, or, as Rancière would put it, it is the conversation that explores the tension between law and fact, without necessarily releasing the tension. The current Zeitgeist has difficulties standing these tensions and requires simplified positions that often find a form in public outrage. Wolfgang Schmidtbauer writes: «It’s not about blaming morality. It’s about its abuse, about over-zealousness, transgression in the service of the narcissistic needs of the zealots. Morals can be abused, like a weapon or physical strength. It can serve the sensationalism or the Pharisaic shudder in the face of the inferiority of others. Then it leads to destructive consequences in private as well as in politics. Conflicts escalate because one side is attributed an abyss of moral failure that cannot be bridged by negotiations» (Schmidbauer, 2017, p. 6; translation LE).
Towards learning institutions
The aspect of gradual insight, the need for time, conversation, research and learning is hindered if not made impossible by outrage. «To be only shaken in the face of a cruel event and to hand over coping to the existing institutions and the existing laws without further complaining, awakens the suspicion of the participants in helicopter morality to trivialize the event and possibly secretly represent the interests of the perpetrators» (Schmidbauer, 2017, p. 148; translation LE).
Institutions that are shaken, not by the public outrage about their history but rather because historic facts show them that “we are human and we are inhuman” – that hand over coping with victims and perpetrators to the existing institutions – can hardly choose not to give immediate answers. They are forced to make bold statements. Keep asking questions from their position of being shaken is more difficult. But institutions need this time and space as well as individuals do. Again the case study of Castrum Peregrini: the eyewitnesses needed time, distance and help to build strength and create an inner space to realise that they felt pain, or to accept pain and to give it a name: abuse. The institution it concerns needed time as well. It needed to learn and will continue to learn. For that it needs a dialogical space.
For a real ethical conversation, to talk about values and moral standards, one needs a definition of our idea of man. In a keynote lecture during the 3rd Annual Conference of the Memory Study Association in Madrid on 27 June 2019 Viet Thanh Nguyen extended his idea of double ethical memory points of the oppressor and the oppressed (Nguyen, 2013) by introducing 4 ethical perspectives on man: 1) we are human, you are inhuman; 2) we are human, you are also human; 3) we are inhuman, you are also inhuman; 4) we are human and inhuman, you are human and inhuman. The fourth principle may offer ethical ground on which to enter into an ongoing dialogue about the creative possibilities of memory.
This ethical perspective requires context and the willingness to deal with complexity. Schmidbauer takes a similar perspective when it comes to human coexistence as the ultimate goal of an ethical discourse that is often out of sight: «Not only in ethics, but also in economy and politics, proportionality and long-term consequences are given little consideration. In an effort to be energetic, activist, anticipatory, these values are lost. This development is leading modern societies more and more into decontextualized ethics. Values are taken out of context and are exaggerated to the superlative as soon as doubts come up. They split the view of the world. They lose touch with reality and replace it with references to firm faith and unconditional willpower. Instead of properly regulating the coexistence of human beings, this morality becomes a means to unleash a storm of indignation, to increase one’s own validity at the expense of a denounced person, and subsequently to destroy people» (Schmidbauer, 2017, p. 6-8; translation LE).
As an alternative to the “moralistic” or “helicopter” view Viet Thanh Nguyen invites us to create a space of time and place that enables institutions and its individuals to learn and become self-aware. This can take the form of dialogue, artistic, participatory or other performative research practices, implementing their outcomes in institutional planning and activities that ideally again have a dialogic and a researching nature. In this sense a cyclical, self-critical and creative institutional culture provides for the currency – the timely relevance – of an institution to contribute to a society that wants to progress towards stronger togetherness and to provide better frameworks of integration. Identities are built on both shared and contested memories. The currently felt fragmentation of societies could be countered if our cultural institutions brought both memories in dialogue, not to find the new master narrative but to move away completely from the monologic towards the dialogic approach. The fear of a negative image of institutions, the fear of the public outrage, pushes institutions in a defensive position and towards “quick-fixes”. Consequently, institutions maintain the status quo and postpone real and sustainable learning to an uncertain future. It requires provocations, incentives and real support to help institutions leave their comfort zone, towards a real “contact zone”.
Heritage as a Contact Zone
If writing history is indeed equal with writing trauma (La Capra, 2001), how can the negotiation of trauma and history, time and again, for each generation anew, be a space in which conflict can be transgressed by forms of dialogue? I believe that only by finding new forms that will allow us as societies to live with ambiguity and heritage-tension, only then we will find more unity and counter-act fragmentation. These new forms of living with ambiguity can “use” heritage as contact zones in which we ask questions that support an ongoing dialogue rather than provide set stories or simplifying answers.
«Wilfred Bion was the first to recognize the “negative capability” conceptualized by Keats for its significance for the social professions. He uses this term to describe the ability of people to absorb and “hold” internal contradictions. Anyone who succeeds in absorbing contradictory affects can assist those who are hurt to survive a storm of affects without damage. Because activism binds fear and gives us a sense of power, it makes it easier for people in emotionally upsetting situations to do something than to admit that they do not know a solution. Non-ability is not the great good, but in many situations it points the way to the lesser evil, the imperfect solution, whereas the pursuit of perfection leads to break-up and destruction» (Schmidbauer, 2017, p. 49; translation LE).
How then can we slow down judgement to allow for creative and reconciliating solutions and still stay self-critical in order to learn? In order to enable institutions to develop this new attitude and formulate respective policies, develop (artistic) research and participatory as well as educational activities, they need new skills, new competences, new knowledge of how to “work through” trauma.
Like other sites of memory, Castrum Peregrini as an example of the tangible heritage of an endless realm of intangible memories, symbolises also European history, which is as much a history of shared cultural accomplishment as it is a history of wars, colonisation, totalitarian and imperial regimes, religious, sexual, economic violence leading to social injustice, racial violence and generally the suppression of “others”. Only by recognising all aspects of history inclusive that of violence, and by actively engaging with those stories of exclusion or trauma that have been marginalised in mainstream heritage representation, Europe and its institutions will be able to transgress its impasse and move forward towards more unity. Cultural mediators and artists can play a key role to open up current heritage structures as ‚contact zones‘ towards more inclusive narratives.
Europe’s ethical and intellectual legacy on heritage-making was first formulated in the Council of Europe’s 2005 Faro Convention: Europe is a space for becoming. There is no belonging to one narrative, to one set of roots, there is only an ongoing building process, there are only routes. This seems hard to achieve in practice with the current instruments, which are, as the case study of Castrum Peregrini shows, frequently a source of conflict and outrage: different understandings of what heritage is, should, or could be, and how and who is to deal with it, are questions that erode the civic space.
In order to use conflict as a positive moment of encounter, empathy and ultimately creativity it will need experiment and the space for ambiguity and failure. This experimentation may not solve problems, but by recognising its need, communities and institutions can take a step forward.
We need an approach that combines the notion of conflict being necessary for creativity and the notion that conflict must be facilitated in order to be secure. The skill to get hot without getting mad, to have a good argument that doesn’t become personal, is a critical life skill that we need to address. Adam Grant describes (Grant, 2017) that we are living in a time when voices that might offend are silenced and that politics, religion and race have become untouchable topics in many social circles. His study shows the need to embrace more than ever the value of disagreement and that challenging an opinion is a sign of respect and care for someone. But this skill, to have a civic argument, needs to be learned. Instead of trying to prevent arguments we need to model courteous conflict in spaces that facilitate healthy disagreement.
Creativity tends to flourish in environments that are tense but secure. In such a space participants need a facilitator to learn how to argue as if they are right, but to listen as if they are wrong, to make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective, and to acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them. One may call these facilitated spaces a conflict or better a “contact zone”. I borough these terms from Nora Sternfelds essay Belonging to the Contact Zone (Sternfeld, 2017). In her perspective contact zones are social spaces in which divers social and cultural positions come into contact and have to coexist – more or less conflictual – and be negotiated. Castrum Peregrini has piloted such a space with the Castrum Peregrini Dialogues. At the moment the EU funded project Heritage Contact Zone (2018-2020) co-ordinated by Castrum Peregrini collects and analyses more examples of initiatives that stay clear of outrage and that ‘move beyond the aesthetic paradigms of moralizing melodrama’ (Fisher, 2015) and use contested heritage as a space to facilitate dialogue.
The Amsterdam artist Amie Dicke has worked for many years with the heritage of Castrum Peregrini and especially that of Gisèle. In 2012 she took a chair from the hiding floor of Castrum Peregrini and drove – together with a journalist and the author – with the chair from Amsterdam to the Haus der Kunst in Munich. Built by Hitler’s favourite architect at the time, Troost, it still bears the original furniture form the Nazi period in its basement storage. Dicke swapped chairs by leaving “innocent” chair from the hiders in Amsterdam in Munich and taking a “guilty” chair back to Amsterdam to temporarily stay in the hiding place. The journey and the weeks of the swap allowed for a deep conversation – with a.o. Zygmunt Baumann – about history and the materiality of memory. We tried to get grip on the almost shamanistic or magic function of objects as a bearer of thoughts, stories and values, like fetishes and totems.
Today we know that the chair that travelled to Munich from Amsterdam was not as “innocent” as we had imagined. It probably also had witnessed abuse. The metaphor nevertheless remains strong like the question how we give a moral load to heritage and how this influences the way we treat it.
The project in the end was not about chairs. It created a space of conversation, a space in which individuals expressed themselves about moral concerns, about how to remember, identify, how to conduct the good life by not looking away. Building and maintaining this space brings ethics, aesthetics and politics together and empowers individuals. Fear that is caused by moral judgement does not, but it can be and should be a part of the conversation.
Assmann A., Dialogic Memory, in Dialogue as a Trans-Disciplinary Concept: Martin Buber’s Philosophy of Dialogue and Its Contemporary Reception, De Gruyter, Berlin, Munich, Boston 2015.
Baethge C., Amerika B., Über den Umgang mit Ambivalenz, in «Merkur 58», Stuttgart 2004.
Bauer T., Die Vereindeutigung der Welt. Über den Verlust an Mehrdeutigkeit und Vielfalt, Reclam, Stuttgart 2018
Bauman Z., Modernity and Ambivalence, Polity Press, Cambridge UK 1993.
Fisher M., The New Problem of Evil, in «Aesthetic Justice. Intersecting Artistic and Moral Perspectives», Valiz Antennae, Amsterdam 2015.
Grant A., Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World, Penguin Random House, New York 2017.
LaCapra D., Writing History, Writing Trauma, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 2001.
Malik K., Living up to Diversity, in «The House of Gisèle», Castrum Peregrini, Amsterdam 2017.
Mooij A., De eeuw van Gisèle. Mythe en werkelijkheid van een kunstenares, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam 2018.
Nguyen V. T., Just Memory: War and the Ethics of Remembrance, in «American Literary History», Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013.
Rancière J., The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics, in «Critical Horizons 7:1», Brill, Leiden 2006.
Schmidbauer W., Helikoptermoral, Murmann, Hamburg 2017.
Sternfeld N., Belonging to the Contact Zone, in «Do I Belong? Reflections from Europe», Pluto Press, London 2017.
Wekker G., White Innocence, Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, Duke University Press, Durham and London 2016.
Lars Ebert (Heidelberg, 1976) is managing board member and co-director of the cultural centre Castrum Peregrini in Amsterdam where he develops and implements European collaboration projects. He also works as an independent advisor in the area of higher education and the arts. He is a frequent facilitator, moderator and speaker during international events and serves on the boards of various international organisations in education, research and policy development in the arts.