Politics Beyond the Street: KP Brehmer and the Making-Visible of Capitalist Realism
Mark Fisher


'How do you occupy an abstraction?' McKenzie Wark posed this question in 2011, in the wake of the Occupy protests [1]. It remains an urgent problem, especially now that the Occupy movement's momentum has dissipated, and capital continues on its remorseless march. We're now very aware that, far from threatening neoliberalism, the financial crisis of 2008-9 has led to the intensified form of neoliberalism known as austerity. We should also be aware of the limitations of the idea of taking direct action against capital. If capital is essentially abstract, then what would such direct action entail? Capitalism is a system of virtualities. It cannot be directly experienced, even if it conditions most of what we can now experience. (It may be difficult to conceive of what really occupying capital might involve, but we can be certain that capital occupies us.) Successful action against capital must therefore be of an indirect sort – it must involve challenging and replacing the machineries of mediation which impose capitalist reality upon us. The work of KP Brehmer was devoted to just this struggle. From its beginnings, Brehmer's art was preoccupied with the ambient systems that produce what we take to be reality: photography (particularly as used and manipulated in advertising and fashion), typography, colours, the iconography of nationalism, the presentation of data. None of these are neutral or objective; all of them have designs upon us, all come loaded with pre-existing associations that Brehmer sought to investigate, expose, play with and alter.


Brehmer is perhaps best known as part of Capitalist Realism, an initiative developed with other artists including Wolf Vostell, Konrad Lueg, Manfred Kuttner, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. Schematically, one could argue that Capitalist Realism was an especially politicised development of Pop Art. The ironic ambivalence characteristic of some Pop gave way to a more openly political investigation of late capitalist techniques of mediatisation and image-production. The play was on Socialist Realism, but there was a clear asymmetry between Stalinist Socialist Realism and the Capitalist Realism that the German artists were parodying. Socialist Realist art was produced as part of a self-conscious political project, the grandest of grand narratives; its function was openly propagandistic. The various forms of libidinal engineering – advertising, PR, branding – employed by capital, and used as the basis of Capitalist Realist art, were presented as anything but political. Ideology aims at naturalisation; it functions best when its work is not perceived at all. Capital's dominion is legitimated, not so much in the narrowly political sphere, but via all the seductive and persuasive arts by which it solicits and produces desire, and by the white magic of statistics and data-management, by which it secures the limits of what is experienced as reality.


Here is one connection between the Capitalist Realism of René Block's Gallery, and my own use of the term [2]. I used the concept capitalist realism to refer to a situation in which there is no alternative to capitalism – in which capitalist social relations and concepts have been so naturalised as to have effectively disappeared. The struggle against this capitalist realism therefore involves a making-visible: both of capital itself and of the techniques that capital uses to mask and sell itself. The irony, of course, is that both capital and the techniques it uses have become increasingly difficult to perceive as capitalist realism has embedded itself. Capitalist realism is this receding of capital from conscious attention. The less capitalism is perceived (as a particular political-economic system, with its own tendencies and characteristics), the more it becomes naturalised. This naturalisation has been accelerated by the disintegration of actually existing socialism in 1989, and by shifts within capitalism itself. Capital's intrinsic abstraction – one can't see or touch capital, it is only known by its effects – has only intensified with its increasing financialisation, which played such a role in the financial crisis of 2008–9. The arcane instruments of finance capital demand a kind of cognitive mapping that takes us far beyond the conceptions and sensations of standard phenomenological experience. 


In Brehmer's work, the project of making-visible first of all takes the form of an exploration of the Pop landscape. These works from the early to mid-1960s are as obsessive as JG Ballard's (who like Brehmer was also influenced by the Independent Group and Richard Hamilton) in their investigation of the Space Age: astronauts, military equipment, television screens, fashion models, automobiles. But if Brehmer's early works reprised familiar Pop images and methodology, he began to definitively mark out his own terrain with Briefmarken, Arbeitsreihe [Stamps, Work Series] (1966–68). Brehmer described the ‘Stamps’ as 'a kind of contribution to the sociology of art', and we might characterise the shift here as a switch from Pop Art to an art organised around sociological problems and motifs. Brehmer's art retreats from a focus on media imagery to work instead on the more taken-for-granted, ambient iconography and information systems of everyday life, and his interventions operate as ludic sociological experiments of various kinds – functioning as new ways of representing data, as probes exploring the attitudes of respondents, as examinations of the hazy borderline between information and aesthetics. The shift to the sociological involves a turning away from the intensely libidinised bright and flashy Pop foreground to the informational and communicational background. Postage stamps offered a rich resource for Brehmer's investigation: they were an exemplary case of an object that combines functionality with aesthetics, and that habitually recedes from conscious attention even as it mediates something as crucial as national identity. The series began with the charged case of the Hitler stamp from the Third Reich: a dramatic example of the way in which power is injected into, and disseminated by, this 'trivial' object. Brehmer went on to produce approximately fifty prints, some based on existing stamp designs, others new designs via collage. One of the aims, Brehmer said, was 'to relate the collector of fine art rather directly to the trivial world. I wanted to depict print collection as an especially perverted form of art consumerism.'


With Farbtest Nationalfarben [Colour Test National Colours] (1969/72), Brehmer continued his investigation of nationalist iconography. But by now the actions were partly conceived of as sociological surveys, which would explore the public's (perhaps previously unconscious) attitudes towards colour, politics and national identity. As he explained:


The German national colours black – red – gold are presented separately as small flags for the public to choose. The colours chosen, place, time, and target audience are statistically recorded. (1) Is the political symbolic value of the colour spontaneously recognised? (2) Is there a generally recognised attribution of the colours to specific political tendencies? (3) Does the test subject stand by his choice? Wave the flag, roll it up, hide it, or throw it away? (4) To what extent is this procedure suitable to illustrate political tendencies?


The flag ceased to be a dead symbol, its form and meaning already fixed, and instead became a plastic space in which attitudes and affects could be examined and played with. Brehmer's interest in colour – in the symbolic, psychological and political associations that different colours carry (it was no accident, he thought, that political tendencies were associated with colours: the Reds, the Greens, the Blues etc) – combines here with his experimentation with representing data. In Korrektur der Nationalfarben, Gemessen an der Vermögensverteilung [Correction of National Colours, Measured by Distribution of Wealth] (1970), the different colours represent the amount of wealth held by different classes in German society. As one might expect, the proportions look grotesquely distorted; the flag no longer stands for some mythical national harmony and represents instead actual class antagonisms. Brehmer starts to explore here a space between the flag form and the graph, once again highlighting the ways in which media such as bar charts are very far from being either neutral or beyond aesthetics.


Brehmer's work plays with the formal and aesthetic dimensions of data-representation, exploring the blocks, lines and grids of the bar chart as shapes and patterns in their own right. At times, it is almost like Mondrian in reverse. If Mondrian's paintings often recall data-matrices – and Farbengeographie (blau) nach Mondrian [Colour Geography (Blue) after Mondrian] (1973/74) makes explicit reference to Mondrian – then it is as if Brehmer is (sometimes only partially) restoring the key to these grids, allowing us to perceive them as information again. Some of the works in the series Realkapital [Real Capital] (1974) move in the opposite direction, transforming trends on graphs into brush strokes that threaten to break out of signification into pure abstraction.


Many of Brehmer's preoccupations – the interest in data, colour and the sociological – come together in Seele und Gefühl eines Arbeiters [Soul and Feelings of a Worker] (1980). Rather than being based on his own research, this series came out of Rexford B. Hersey's book Workers' Emotions in Shop and Home (1932), a study of the affects of those working on the Pennsylvania Railroad in the early twentieth century. As Brehmer observed:


Hersey used the categories 'very happy', 'happy', 'cheerful', 'interested', 'neutral plus', 'neutral minus', 'peevish', 'disgusted', 'sad', 'apprehensive' and 'worried'. The study continued for a year. From these factors I developed a composition grid, with time on the horizontal axis and the scale of the mood on the vertical. In addition, I marked the moods with symbolic colours. The emotions of the work move within this grid.


In Soul and Feelings of a Worker, coloured blocks dance across graph paper in a way that recalls a musical score, and it is no surprise to learn that, in a delightfully Cageian gesture, Brehmer did convert the work into an actual experimental musical score. The aim of this piece is suggestively ambivalent: is this a genuine attempt to render workers' emotions in graphic form, or a parody of such efforts? Brehmer seems to be simultaneously fascinated and suspicious of sociological data and its representation, simultaneously demystifying and playing with its form. 


But what political function could any of this have? As an artist committed to radical social transformation, Brehmer nevertheless had an ostensibly modest view of what being a political artist entailed: 'I said in 1968 that the artist should become an official', Brehmer remembered in an interview with Georg Jappe. 'What I meant was that the artist should face up to the demand that he be useful to this society somewhere' [3]. This apparent modesty contrasts tellingly with some of the more extravagant claims made on behalf of revolutionary art before and after May 1968. But the idea that the political artist be useful to society inevitably presupposes a society that could make use of politically radical art – an idea that, in contemporary conditions of restoration and reaction, is close to utopian. What is rejected in this de-romanticised view of political art is a certain position of impotent marginality, which has become standard in anti-capitalist culture. What is affirmed is something that anti-capitalism has by and large lost in its institutionalised oppositionalism: a confidence that a new society can in fact be constructed, and that the role of the political artist is not to be in permanent opposition, but to assist in the production of this 'new normal'.


In the same interview with Jappe, Brehmer rejects the idea of a pure ex-nihilo revolutionary rupture. 'To say something completely new is being created from outside – this total "outside" doesn't exist, these are overblown claims that have shaped themselves from the political movements of the day. If an artist wants to change society, he can only work with the foundation – to make it broader, more stable. For this reason, changes from the outside are a flash in a pan.' [4] Brehmer here is in tune with the Gramscian 'inside and against' approach of Stuart Hall and others [5]. There are a number of parallels to be drawn between cultural studies as practiced by Hall and Brehmer's attention to the way in which what is taken for reality is constructed by culture. The emphasis on culture, on the contributions that aesthetics makes to political processes, mandates a focus on the way in which hegemony is produced by indirect actions. Another parallel with Hall was Brehmer's conviction that 'the gulf between art and the "trivial" has to be overcome. The attempt to introduce encodings of the trivial into "high art" as a way to get close to the reality of society could be a first step.'


Perhaps most importantly, Brehmer shared with Hall the awareness that political activists must work with what is here, now – which is by no means saying that they must stay stuck here: on the contrary. We are condemned to work from within the capitalist system – never more so than now – but that is the only position that remains from which an alternative can be built. Brehmer's work is a timely reminder that, to be successful, a politics aimed at overcoming capital cannot take place on the street alone. One of the famous slogans coming out of Paris in 1968 was 'structures don't walk in the streets' – but the problem today is the opposite: How can the politics of street protest make any contact with the abstract structures of capital that appear to be immune to direct action? First we must make those structures visible – and Brehmer gives us a few indications of how art can play a role in making them visible.





[1] McKenzie Wark, ‘How to Occupy an Abstraction’, Verso Blog, 3 October 2011. http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/728-mckenzie-wark-on-occupy-wall-street-how-to-occupy-an-abstraction

[2] See Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, (Ropley: Zero Books, 2009).

[3] ‘KP Brehmer. Interview by Georg Jappe’, Studio International, vol. 191, no. 980 (March/April 1975), p.143.

[4] ‘KP Brehmer. Interview by Georg Jappe’, op. cit., p.143.

[5] See Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left, (London: Verso, 1988).