Dreams and nightmares: beds in normal and extraordinary times

A public intervention on a public square, with small performances around large bunk beds from a former nuclear bomb shelter in Regensburg, thematizing the human need for rest, protection and shelter. Confronted with these beds, onlookers shared their thoughts with the participants who wrote snippets of the conversations on patches of bed sheets they had folded --symbolising normality-- and then ripped apart -- symbolising rupture-- during the performance. Performed in Regensburg, 31 January 2019.

By Ger Duijzings (UR), Frederik Lange (UR), Hans Simon Pelanda (Donumenta), and Eva-Maria Walther (UR), with participation of the (UR) student association Fachschaft Südost.

On a cold but sunny day, the Regensburg Again Never Again team, with the support of the local art organisation Donumenta and a group of students did a performative art intervention on the Viereimerplatz in the pedestrian zone of the old centre of Regensburg. We built up two bunk beds taken from a former (and never used) fallout shelter located underneath the Thon-Dittmer-Palais (next to the town hall), offering 2400 citizens a place to sleep in case of Cold War air raids or nuclear attacks. Throughout the day, we carried out various ‘everyday’ domestic performances, such as the folding of bed sheets, arranging the covers on the beds, wrapping ourselves with them (a welcome protection against the freezing cold), and hanging sheets on a washing line drawn between a tree and the fountain located on the square. The most provocative part of our performance was the ripping apart and scissoring of sheets into small patches on which we wrote brief statements of passersby who talked to us and shared their ideas. At the end of the day the beds had various patches with inscriptions hanging on them, with snippets from conversations we had heard. At a separate table, we offered coffee and tea to people who entered into a conversation with us.

We intentionally offered very few immediate clues for passersby of what we were doing except for a poster with an image of a bed placed in a destroyed and dystopian landscape with an accompanying text, and an identical flyer for people to take away. Most people were confused with us carrying out mundane activities such as folding and hanging bed sheets on a line around beds. People were forced to enter into conversations to understand what was happening, and which cause we defended. This was our intention: to trigger spontaneous conversations and open-ended exchanges of ideas. People had various associations after seeing us doing ‘things’ around these ‘undefined’ beds in public space: many thought that they were scaffolds, and were surprised to hear that they belonged to a nuclear shelter and that people were supposed to sleep on these (uncomfortable) steel objects, others thought almost immediately of (psychiatric) hospital beds, army beds, or prison or concentration camp beds. Youngsters had positive and adventurous associations such as youth hostel beds. A child was exasperated that the cuddly animals were missing.  

The idea to use these bunk beds for our public intervention came from a member of the contemporary art organisation Donumenta (our local partner), Hans Simon-Pelanda, who knew the beds were about to be thrown away because the nuclear shelter was no longer needed. The beds had been already used by the Bosnian (Roma) artist Selma Selman who had taken them as props in her video installation “I wish I had a German Passport” (2018) addressing the fate of war refugees in an installation in a venue in the centre of Regensburg. Hans Simon-Pelanda, an academic and local memory activist had assisted the Bosnian artist and also became involved in our activity. We mobilised one dozen students, mainly from the ‘Fachschaft Südost’ (Student Association Southeast) consisting of students doing the Southeast European studies degree.

Hans Simon-Pelanda’s proposal, already made in October 2018, was to rescue a few bunk beds from the air raid shelter before they were to be thrown away. We contacted the city authorities, received and stored two of them, including the original bed covers, and then started to brainstorm what to do with these objects. What crystallized was to use them as symbols of (relative) safety in abnormal times, a place of refuge in ‘extraordinary’ times of war, homelessness, illness or other forms of adversity. Yet in public space they would be somehow out-of-place: beds as taken-for-granted everyday objects stand for privacy and intimacy but by putting them up on a public square we would expose them to the gaze of numerous unknown others, creating a somehow uncanny situation.

Apart from developing the concept for the intervention, we also visited the former nuclear shelter, which now functions as a parking garage for employees of the town hall. We held a preparation meeting with all the participants, who were briefed about the concept, the site of the intervention, receiving various practical instructions how to make the event performative, enacting normality by folding bed sheets, hanging them on a line, wrapping oneself in them as protection against the cold, or pulling the sheet over one’s head to ward off demons as children tend to do when they are afraid. Violent rupture and abnormality were to be acted out by conspicuously ripping and scissoring the sheets apart. The patches of cloth were to be used to inscribe phrases from the conversations to be had with passersby, hanging them on the bed frames as a visual archive of the day’s conversations. The participants received instructions on how to start conversations, what questions to ask, how to perform roles and create certain 'situations' that would trigger a response from the audience. They were also made aware of certain categories of people they were likely to encounter, such as elderly Germans with experiences of war, expulsion, and displacement, specifically ‘Vertriebene’ (expellees from the eastern territories of the Third Reich, after Germany lost the war) and ‘Aussiedler’ (ethnic Germans who relocated from parts of eastern Europe during the 1980s and 1990s). In addition: homeless people, migrants from Eastern Europe, Syrian refugees, and sympathizers of extreme right parties.

The beds and micro-performances triggered various responses, which we captured and shared through whatsapp group sound recordings after the conversations had taken place. Some people just stopped, watched, read the poster or flyer, and moved on without entering into a conversation. Others approached us with questions or comments. Some older people knew about the nuclear bomb shelter, but younger people were generally unaware. An elderly lady told us that during the Cold War she and the neighbours had had their own private bunkers in the basements of their homes, which, with hindsight, she thought was rather absurd as it would not have made much sense to live on in a world that would have been destroyed. We don’t need them anymore, she suggested, although the world has not become any safer. Another woman was of the opinion that the bunker had been built just for the elite of the city, which did not seem implausible as it was located very close to the town hall.

Some people shared their own tiny traumas. Two young women told the story of how they had been left stranded at night in a city they did not know. They went to the train station to sleep there. A man told he had slept in various collective facilities, such as the army and a official night shelter for the homeless at the train station: he did not like that at all because one does not have privacy. Another man had been hospitalized in psychiatric wards, where he claimed the beds are much worse than these. An older woman told she had slept on the floor after she had quarreled with her husband, and yet another told of her divorce and how she now lives in a small apartment estranged from her family. Many seemed taken by a kind of defaitism: many things go wrong in life and one always has to deal with numerous issues. After seeing the beds, they immediately switched to their own adversarial experiences and the problems of this world.

Some homeless people assumed that we were activists protesting against homelessness, the lack of affordable housing, rent increases, and privatisation of social housing. A shabby looking elderly woman carrying plastic bags with belongings denied she was homeless but told us that homelessness is a serious problem and that people cannot really help it when they get into such a situation. She complained about her tiny pension and the cuts to social security, calling Germany a “Verbrecherstaat” (a criminal state), a term used in extreme right circles. She had a home, she said, but she was afraid to become homeless.

As expected some had had their own experiences of war and displacement. There was a young Syrian couple jogging through the centre of Regensburg, who had fled the war and tried to build up their lives in Germany. They did not want to talk about their war experiences. An old woman in her eighties, with a son of sixty something, had had her own experience as a refugee in 1945. They both thought our intervention was silly, and refused to take the flyer. They said they knew what it meant to be refugees and did not want to be compared with the Syrian refugees, who received all the support they want. She said she never had received any assistance whatsoever: the situation had been far more brutal at the end of the Second World War, and she felt quite offended that these situations are compared.

Others told of their political engagement. One man presented himself as a Reichsbürger, a self-designation of people who believe that the German state is a farce, and who strive to construct their own alternative legal order. Although these ideas are usually associated with the far-right, he denied being part of this because he had married a foreigner. A woman who had been active in the anti-war movement, said that nowadays, people have no clue what it means, war and violence. Had they known they would show more empathy for the refugees. During the refugee crisis of 2015-16, she had taken a refugee family in her home, which had been a challenge. An man of around seventy had been an activist himself in the 1960s and 1970s, he missed these times, but was happy to see young people like us doing something. Two teenage girls dropped by at the table and asked two cups of ‘our’ tea for the homeless people sitting around the corner.

Afterwards most students thought our intervention had been a process of discovery also for ourselves. We did not define any clear theme, such as the ‘Holocaust’, ‘refugees’ or ‘nuclear war’, and had no clear didactic content that we wanted to convey, no banners with slogans, just the beds which were meant to trigger associations, for different people to come up with their own stories. Having no message to bring across, we were open to others and learned more. We connected with people’s lives, in their own local context. Through our intervention the square became a space for communication and exchange. The only way to do this is by approaching passersby and onlookers in a gentle and not offensive manner, and give them time to watch, read, think and respond. It it was however difficult to keep going for hours in a row: it was intense, most participants were oversaturated with impressions and got mentally exhausted. Conversations take energy, especially when the collucutors start firing questions back at us or even express hostility, thinking we are just a bunch of leftists. We all developed our own strategies how to conduct the conversations, some of which had been unpleasant or weird.

Part of the discussions we had after the event revolved around the question whether the performative element could have been stronger, so people would have been able to watch something more eye-catching. A problem one may have with this is that spectacles turn people into spectators, placing them outside the event. If it had been a more theatrical or striking performance, people would not have entered into conversations with us, which was the key thing we wanted to achieve. The micro-performances were the easiest thing to do, as it allowed us to kill time and beat the cold by wrapping the sheets and bed covers around us. It was fun doing these things, whereas approaching people was more difficult.

What we also learned through this intervention was to exercise tolerance: it is not possible or even desirable to “convert” everybody, nor to convince others that our public intervention is meaningful. We encountered emotional responses, and that helped to increase the affective attachment to what we were doing, achieving a better and deeper learning. There are also certain risks attached to approaching unknown others and having conversations with them. Getting different unexpected responses, one is forced out of one’s comfort zone. In this era of social media, however, we have less and less experience with exchanging and negotiating viewpoints with others in real time and non-virtual space. For most of us, it was surprising to see how easy it was to have such conversations and how little it takes to learn from them. We also reflected on whether this kind of activity or intervention could work as a university course: students were of the opinion that it probably would not, as all spontaneity would be lost, and students would be primarily preoccupied with getting ECTS points, the marking of their work, etc. introducing elements of stress, pressure, hierarchy, and asymmetry.

English Transcriptions:

  1. The cuddly animals are missing...
  2. We are fine!
  3. I often lay in my cosy bed thinking, "how many people do not have this!?"
  4. If you die (in a war), you go to Paradise
  5. When the time comes, the time comes….
  6. When I have no bed, I sleep at the train station.
  7. It is important to be aware of how well we are doing!
  8. Sometimes it’s just naked survival that is at stake.