Glorifying Neofascism – How the Berlin KW Institute and Austrian Artists Approach Future Audiences

When my friends were hiding in bomb shelters or once again forced to confront the reality of death, I eagerly hoped for a gesture of solidarity from the cultural and artistic institutions of Berlin. I believe in the power of art, it is a universal language that allows people to come together, exchange ideas, make sense of the present, and convey messages beyond traditional media.

On the morning of 25 March, Russians launched another missile attack on Kyїv. As a result, the central part of the Academy of Decorative Applied Arts and Design building was destroyed. This academy graduated talented artists and designers, many of whom are now in Berlin. In such moments, I deeply need conversations about what is happening. I am still searching for active support, as the war is ongoing, and the number of casualties and destruction only grows with each passing day. As Lesya Ukraїnka wrote, “contra spem spero” – even in despair, find hope.

(1) Destroyed building of the Academy of Decorative Applied Arts and Design in Kyїv, photo by State Emergency Service of Ukraїne. (2) Photo of the aftermath of the blast wave in student classrooms, photo provided by students of the Academy. March 2024

On the same day of the attack on the Kyїv Academy, a post from the KW Institute for Contemporary Art appeared on my Instagram feed. KW is a highly influential German institution that grew from a squat in a former margarine factory. In the 90s, much of Berlin was squatted, as the wall had just come down, and young adventurers, artists, punks, and musicians were creating new spaces for themselves in the city of abandoned buildings. This place evolved into an artistic residency and exhibition space over time.

Today, KW looks like a very fancy establishment in the Mitte district. It is right in the centre of the city, neighbouring the government quarter, Alexanderplatz, the central train station, and Museum Island. The streets of Mitte are filled with art galleries, boutiques, upscale restaurants, pedigree dogs, and in the summer many people here wear those “Birkenstock” sandals.

KW Institute facade and entrance, photo by author, April 2024

The exhibition “Poetics of Encryption” is being actively promoted throughout Berlin. This exhibition is about all relevant techno-post-future discourses, which is about nothing in particular. I found out about it through the work by the Austrian net art collective ubermorgen, presented by KW on Instagram. 

ubermorgen duo – Liz Haas and Luzius Bernhard – are dinosaurs of net art. They were creating art in the prehistoric ages of postmodernism since the middle of the 90s, and have not changed since then. They consider themselves as floating radicals enjoying playing chess with elitists and intellectuals. That is what they say of themselves: pioneers, master deducers’, and media hackers’ are widely recognized for their online actionism, haute couture websites & NFTs, their polarizing social experiments, radical empathy, dark AI, nonbinary primitivism, conceptual research. (c)


Screenshots from “Asylabwehramt / Asylum Defence Agency”, ubermorgen 2011

So, in 2022, curator Nadim Samman invited the duo for commissioned by KW piece. In October 2022, artists and Professors of Angewandte University of Applied Arts in Vienna,  Liz Haas and Luzius Bernhard, launched a website dedicated to the Russian terrorist organization, Wagner Group. The artist’s fee for participating in the exhibition is approximately 3000 euros without production costs. Just to give you an idea of the scale, this is an exhibition featuring 40 invited solo artists and collectives. It includes multimedia works: various screens, projectors, sculptures, posters and installations.

The website “PWC Wagner Arts” was created with a primitive, crude web design in the style of the 2000s, full of visuals and texts generated using AI. The main theme of the texts is the so-called philosophy of the terrorist group, their military successes, and visions of the future. Reading it is horrifying.

Screenshots from website “PMC Wagner Arts” by ubermorgen, commissioned by KW in 2022

Visualizations feature artificially generated fairy dragons and chicks, dinosaurs, and kittens, in short, cute colourful creatures, among them equally cute criminals, politicians, and ultra-rich and ultra-right individuals. The texts are generated by AI, absolute nonsense compiled from the activities of the Wagner Group, which artists actively monitor, and corporate brochures from Alibaba or Jeff Bezos’s letter to a board of directors. For example, with such a text, this work was presented on KW’s Instagram, causing a wave of outrage:

PMC Wagner Arts is a company that provides artful and subversive assistance to the state’s military. Security is a sophisticated and complex performance, mines and other infrastructures are declared as interactive sculptures and artists-run spaces, and the holding company, its subsidiaries, and buildings themselves become works of art – a kind of new global actionism, with installations, digital and physical objects, and exhibitions. This shift in action and perspective allows PMC Wagner Arts to gain ultimate freedom from prosecution and turn into parallel Extrastatecraft. Mercenaries are trained, labeled and protected as artists and corporate communication as protected by freedom of speech.

The Wagner Group is a Russian military organization, responsible for numerous war crimes and atrocities. During the war in the Central African Republic, the Wagner Group was involved in activities such as seizing and protecting valuable resources like gold, diamonds, and oil.

In the Syrian civil war, which erupted in 2011 amid demands for democracy and opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime during the Arab Spring, the Wagner Group fought alongside Assad’s forces. In 2017, a video surfaced on YouTube showing Wagner mercenaries brutally killing a Syrian civilian and performing amputations near an oil field.

In Ukraine, the Wagner Group’s presence became notable with the beginning of the war, starting with the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of the Donbas region in 2014. 

The leader of this deadly gang was Putin’s right hand Yevgeny Prigozhin; now his son Pavel has taken his place. Prigozhin is also known for his digital projects, such as the troll factory, which is deeply involved in the information war worldwide. Although technically separate from the Kremlin, essentially, it is all part of the same organized crime under the name of the Russian state.

My initial reaction to this so-called artwork was horror at the spread of Russian propaganda through art institutions in Berlin. However, later on, I calmed down and recalled the enduring phrase popular during the Cold War: useful fools. It refers to persons who are perceived as propagandizing for a cause without fully comprehending the cause’s goals, and who are cynically being used by the cause’s leaders. What else can be said about individuals who, under the pretext of artistic freedom, are glorifying the neofascists amidst the chaos of the Third World War?

During the panel discussion at Panke Kultur, while answering the question regarding the motivation for creating this work, Hans Bernard said:

Could the freedom of the arts in Germany used by people who are not German? In Germany, freedom of art is one of the highest values enshrined in the German Constitution. It overrides many things. So, the idea was that these cooperations or dystopian cooperations could use the freedom of art to defend their crimes in the International Criminal Court, for example, in Hague. That was my motivation to write this text.

Ukrainian music journalist Maya Baklanova drew attention to this work on Instagram. She also mentioned that ubermorgen previously had a problematic piece dedicated to Somali pirates. Liz Haas and Luzius Bernhard were initially invited to exhibit this work at Documenta 15. However, they faced opposition from the African artistic and intellectual community, leading to their exclusion of ubermorgen from the festival. The reason was that as white artists, they were deemed unable to authentically portray the experiences and struggles of black people. Maya communicated with KW and ubermorgen through her own stories, explaining what was wrong with this work, but she did not receive any feedback. Within three days, KW’s post garnered over 200 comments from people unanimously declaring it as the normalization of violence and atrocities. 

Comments under KW’s instagma post promoting ubermorgen’s work PMC Wagner Arts, March 2024. Due to multiple complaints post was deleted by Meta lately.

By the way, after the first hundred comments, the institution posted an update where they decided to explain to the public that the artwork aimed to create an “uncomfortable satire,” which only sparked even more criticism. One of the valid comments regarding this work was expressed on Instagram, questioning the artists’ decision to focus on the Wagner Group instead of Austrian companies that, despite all sanctions, continue selling components for weapons of mass destruction to Russians. Later on, due to numerous complaints, Instagram removed this post from KW’s page. The institution then posted that “spring has come,” without commenting on the situation itself.

So, I decided to attend the exhibition and see how this work operates within the gallery space. After touring all the rooms, I could not find the work, and the mediators in the halls were clueless. When I asked the receptionist about this work, she commented on its controversial nature and said it was located on the second floor. A guide led me there, and we approached a large table with four Mac monitors displaying screensavers, where this work was supposed to be presented. The computer prompted for an administrator password. I asked the guide why the work was closed off; she replied that she did not know anything and that it was the management’s decision. Later, I visited this exhibition two more times, and the same story repeated – the work was inaccessible in the exhibition space. When I had the opportunity to ask the curator of the exhibition, Nadim Saman, directly about the matter, he said they could not create a script that would prevent viewers from leaving the site and downloading porn. Lol.

(1,3) Photos of installation with ubermorgen piece closed. (2) Sign in front of the entrance to the second floor where the work is supposed to be exhibited, KW, March-April 2024

There is a fundamental value of respect for human life. Why are artists allowed to romanticize killers, and what effect do they aim to achieve after such provocation? Why is it permitted to undermine the value of human life? “Let’s think, is killing bad?” – I see this is disrespectful not only to the victims of these killers but also to the audience. Questioning and doubting this fundamental value is already problematic. Because the value of human life is an inviolable principle declared in all Constitutions and Human rights.

The responsibility lies with the group of curators who included this work, adopting it as part of an exhibition with the romantic title “Poetics of Encryption,” where the very explanation declares that modern systems are powerful and incomprehensible: “Today, we must all come to terms with our relative lack of power in the face of inscrutable systems.” In my view, this also undermines the efforts of those artists, curators, and grassroots activists who, despite everything, continue to fight against the hegemonic systems.

The war is ongoing. When I see my people and cities shattered, I feel the ruїns within myself. Since I was a kid, I have been horrified by the atrocities of the Second World War, the Holocaust, and a series of genocides, like the man-made famine of the Holodomor on the territory of Ukraine. How could people not know what was happening and just carry on with their lives? Why did not people protest or fight back? 

As we see today, history is repeating itself. And I have come to understand that to be a neofascist, you do not have to label yourself as one. It is enough to play along with these systems, conduct business as usual, align with the stronger side, and not support the weaker. This very work, artists’ and curators’ behaviour, and institutions’ silence are systemic issues in German institutions today. Therefore, I aim to solidarise and collaborate with people who understand the realities of war and are committed to actively protecting the democracies that were hard-won by those who defend our freedom.