Like a leaf in the wind…
The Zentrum für Politische Schönheit takes on political „image vehicles“
Together with coins and stamps, leaflets belong to those image-bearing artefacts that inspired one of Aby Warburg’s most momentous metaphors. Indeed, in his cultural-historical theory of the distribution of images, these printed media, produced quickly and cheaply, even succeeded, in his view, the technically mobile but in reality cumbersome and costly tapestries that were part of the furnishings of courtly self-image in the pre-modern era: “Due not only to its mobility but also its technique, which fitted the multiple reproduction of its image, the Flemish tapestry is the first, albeit colossal, automobiles Bilderfahrzeug (automobile image vehicle), which, freed from the wall, served as a forerunner of the printed illustrated page (in other words, the copper engraving and the woodcut) that for the first time made the exchange of expressive values between North and South into a vital part of the process of circulation that shaped the formation of European style” (Aby Warburg: MNEMOSYNE. Introduction , in: id.: Der Bilderatlas MNEMOSYNE (ed. by Martin Warnke and Claudia Brink), Berlin 2000, pp. 3-6, p. 5). These “printed illustrated pages” – seemingly unimpressed by competition from digital media – still carry their messages into the world today, bearing information on political aims and utopias, events and meetings, criticising the state, church and economy, calling for resistance and revolution, spreading propaganda, fake news and conspiracy theories.
While the iconography of leaflets has been researched again and again – especially since Warburg – less so the political agency of their dissemination and their reception (cf. Uwe Fleckner, Martin Warnke and Hendrik Ziegler (eds.): Handbuch der Politischen Ikonographie, Munich 2011, 2 vols.). And yet these prints with text and image, already circulating in the late Middle Ages, quite rightly deserve their poetic name: “leaflet” or “flyer”, in German “Flugblatt” (lit.: flying leaf), in French occasionally even “papillon” (“butterfly”). Though primarily intended to pass from hand to hand, in the history of political propaganda they have, not infrequently, been thrown from vehicles into the to-be-agitated crowds. As may be seen, for example, in a photograph from the Reichstag election campaign of 1924, in which a veritable swarm of leaflets rises into the air and, carried by the wind, sets out to unfold its political effect (Fig. 1). Leaflets were also dropped en masse from balloons or aircraft behind enemy lines (“leaflet bombs”) during the two world wars – and some occasions since then – in order to demoralise soldiers and civilians in an act of psychological warfare.
One particularly famous instance is a daring propaganda flight over Vienna in which the symbolist proto-fascist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and a small squadron of pilots dropped thousands of leaflets over the capital of the Austrian enemy in the summer of 1918, shortly before the end of the First World War (Fig. 2). Adorned with the Italian tricolour, the descending propaganda prints proclaimed a no less daring text: “On this August morning, while the fourth year of your desperate spasm comes to an end and the year of our full strength begins brightly shining, the tricolour wings suddenly appear to you as a sign of the fate which is about to turn. With iron certainty it turns towards us. Forever gone is the hour of that Germany which carries you away, humbles you and infects you. […] On the winds of victory that rise from the rivers of freedom, we came merely for the joy of boldness, we came only to prove what we dare do and can do whenever we choose, at the hour we choose. The roar of the young Italian wings is no death knell in the morning sky” (translated from Annamaria Andreoli: D’Annunzio e Trieste. Nel centenario del primo volo aereo, Rome 2003, p. 36). The message that was intended to emanate from these darkly murmured lines, however, did not quite hits its mark with the Viennese, for the vain poet had of course not deigned to translate his, in any case not easily understandable words into German.
Though now often reduced to a profane advertising medium, leaflets are, however, still used for political purposes, as German citizens were able to experience just recently in the Bundestag election campaign. Or rather weren’t. For the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (“Centre for Political Beauty”), a group of artists whose actions, as intelligent as they are anarchic and imaginative, are designed to draw attention to the fact that in the “struggle for human rights” an “offensive, radical and illegal appearance is legitimised,” has dedicated its most recent artistic intervention to the ‘volative’ power of the leaflet (https://politicalbeauty.de/ueber–das-ZPS.html). The activists founded a mock company, Flyerservice Hahn, which approached the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), the German right-wing conservative-populist, partly right-wing extremist party, and offered to distribute its leaflets (and other advertising material) in German households for a small fee. Their very favourable conditions quickly made the rounds within the party, and without checking either the existence or reputation of the flyer service, dozens of local AfD groups sent their printed materials to the artists for distribution. Indeed so great was the uptake that the artists themselves were surprised by their own success. What the AfD could not have guessed was that the alleged company, according to its own ironic declaration the “world market leader in not distributing Nazi flyers” (https://afd-muell.de), had no intention whatsoever of actually getting the propaganda leaflets to potential voters: “The result: 85 lazy local, district and state branch associationsof the AfD deliver bundle after bundle to a nationwide network of logistics centres of our world market leader. At the last count: 5 million flyers. 72 tonnes of AfD trash” (ibid.). To cut a long story short: the Flyerservice Hahn made good on its dumping price offer and literally dumped the blue and white flyers with their optimistic party logo, a soaring red arrow, in specially rented storage facilities.
A few days after the Bundestag elections, which brought the AfD – and now we know why – a loss in vote share, the performance became public and print- and other media have since reported on this “guerrilla action” (https://taz.de/Guerilla-Aktion-vor-Bundestagswahl/!5804054/). On the 30. September, some of the flyers, about 30 tonnes of waste paper, were then presented in containers near the Jannowitz Bridge in Berlin, offering the public a fun way to deal with the leaflets that had remained undistributed: “Ballpits are yesterday: Now take a once-in-a-lifetime bath in fresh Nazi propaganda that was removed from the election campaign with your help!” (https://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/aktion-des-zentrums-fuer-politische-schoenheit-kuenstlergruppe-praesentiert-tonnenweise-afd-flyer-in-berlin/27663942.html). Press photographs show that the leaflets at this point certainly remembered their original function, and thrown into the air by playing children and happy adults, as an artistic medium in true beauty and cheerfully liberated flight, they unfolded a political message, though certainly not the one printed on the paper (Fig. 3). On their homepage, the artists are now asking for support from the public, as the AfD, which does not want to grant the political-aesthetic performance of the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit any artistic license and freedom and accordingly also no freedom from punishment, is threatening to sue the creators of this participative performance (https://afd-muell.de). For a small donation, which will be used to pay for legal fees, they are offering all kinds of merchandise printed with references to the performance, pens, postcards, posters, stickers, hats and T-shirts, which will in turn move throughout the nation as “Bilderfahrzeuge” instead of the usual giveaways associated with party political campaigns. In addition, they promise to make sure the amassed leaflets are dealt with in an environmentally friendly way (“Your donation disposes of 1,250 flyers”). One can but imagine what will be printed on the resulting recycled paper: Perhaps messages that serve the “moral beauty, political poetry and human magnanimity” (https://politicalbeauty.de/ueber%E2%80%93das-ZPS.html) that the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit has chosen as their watchwords.
 Translation (slightly altered) after Matthew Rampley, “The Absorption of the Expressive Values of the Past”, Art in Translation, Volume 1, Issue 2, p. 282.