Unity and Justice and...

This essay was published in Eye magazine, issue 99, October 2019

With New Anthems VI, Inkahoots' latest interactive typographic sculpture in Berlin invites public dialogue about national identity in a time of resurgent nationalism.

The last time Germany insisted its national identity was fixed and pure, it didn't end well for anyone. National identity mutates into the grotesque ideology of nationalism while waiting to be uncovered or rediscovered. Inkahoots' series of New Anthems installations affirm national identity as dynamic and constructed, rather than fixed and natural.

New Anthems attempts to integrate graphic design’s potential regarding expressive modes of language with simple user-generated digital interactivity. The project opens a playful forum for public dialogue and cultural critique, allowing users to rewrite foundational national texts – this time part of the German national anthem.

With the growing global resurgence of ultra-nationalism, social, cultural and religious stereotypes are being used to exclude and divide. Today in Germany, the successful postwar rejection of the radical right appears to be undermined by the electoral gains of the anti-European Union, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim Alternative für Deutschland, the serious violence of the Chemnitz riots, and now the Neo-Nazi murder of CDU politician Walter Lübcke.

In May this year Bodo Ramelow, an eastern German state premier, called for a new national anthem to reflect current values and embrace both sides of the two former Germanys post reunification. Who better to tackle this solemn task than an obscure design studio from another hemisphere, in collaboration with a new space in Berlin for experimental graphic design, and “the first museum in the world to collect letterforms from public spaces and display them as part of urban history”?!

Anja Lutz's A–Z initiative is a rare home for graphic design misfits. She has built a project and exhibition space with a mission of “expanding the territory of graphic design by rethinking its limits... ranging from print, digital media, installation, performance, film, and a variety of other media and formats.” The collaborations will “cover a spectrum of topics, from typography and language, templates and hacking, to political and social questions... creating works that reach beyond the commissioned and applied realm of graphic design.” With A–Z, Anja is in some ways circling back, from her publishing and book design practice, to her earlier experimental magazine shift!, an open platform for exploring a wide variety of people, ideas and formats.

A–Z's first exhibitor, Andrea Tinnes, presented her wonderful Library of Shapes, Texts and Structures, using a compiled, personal archive of graphic elements as source material for creating a vibrant, multi-layered series of prints.

Inkahoots' contribution is the sixth version of our New Anthems series. For past versions we have made custom designed sculptural typography using neon, fibre optics, recycled cardboard and timber, even giant helium-filled letter balloons. This installation uses historic letters from East and West Berlin loaned from the extraordinary collection of the Buchstabenmuseum.

The Buchstabenmuseum (the Museum of Letters) was born in 2005 as Barbara Dechant and Anja Schulze founded a nonprofit organisation to preserve, restore and exhibit signage from Berlin and around the world. The museum was opened to the public in 2008 to research and document the stories behind the signs, and explore their unique typographic character and manufacturing processes.

Working with these objects was a wonderful experience for a typographer, especially since most work with letterforms these days is just pushing pixels and pulling vectors. Touching, and even smelling and hearing these letters, with their grime from the street, rust from the weather and individual material resonances should be prescribed practice for seasoned screen-bound designers.

And if a designer can fit a bootful of interlocked, fragile historical letters in the back of a small car and transport them across Berlin without damage, then they can kern anything!

The letters spell out the most commonly cited line in Das Lied der Deutschen by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, from the current German national anthem:

Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit
Für das deutsche Vaterland!

(Unity and justice and freedom
For the German fatherland!)

The words ‘Freiheit’ (Freedom) and ‘das deutsche Vaterland’ (For the German fatherland) are omitted and replaced with LED screens enabling participants to input their own words via SMS, and rewrite the text. A website enables real-time listing and archiving of all displayed contributions.

Contributions ranged from simple sincere reimaginings: Unity and justice and FREEDOM for ALL; to commentary on serious national issues: Unity and justice and DEATH for DEATH LISTS (in response to revelations of the far-right using police data to compile death lists for political opponents), Unity and justice and FREE ADMISSION for ALL MUSEUMS; to not-so-serious national events: Unity and justice and THREE GLASSES WATER for ANGELA MERKEL (in response to the German Chancellor getting the dehydration trembles); to international geo-political controversies: Unity and justice and RUSSIA for AMERICA; to the most crucial controversies of our age: Unity and justice and PINEAPPLE for PIZZA, Unity and justice and LIGATURES for WEBFONTS.

And maybe one day, as someone texted, we can even have Einigkeit und Recht und eine bessere Hymne für Deutschland (Unity and justice and A BETTER ANTHEM for GERMANY).

For future versions, Inkahoots will continue to collaborate around the world with letters and code to promote creative participation from diverse communities as a democratic imperative. New Anthems is a little project with the big idea of accepting and reinforcing the complexity and pluralism of contemporary cultural life. It lives as an adaptive ongoing platform for the urgent international critique of resurgent nationalism and xenophobia.


Jason Grant 2019

Visit A–Z at Torstr. 93, 10119 Berlin-Mitte. Visit New Anthems online at newanthems.inkahoots.com.au

Photography Hans-Georg Gaul, A–Z and Inkahoots.