Diary note 32: At IKEA with Transformalor

Berlin, 16 March 2019

This afternoon we were thrown out of IKEA in East Berlin when participating in a performance by Johannes Paul Raether. He is a Herr Doktor from Düsseldorf, but also known for his public appearances in many capital cities. Today he went with the identity of Transformella Malor, “Transformalor” in brief. He called the intervention a “happening”, using an old fashioned term.

We assembled outside IKEA on a windy and rainy Saturday, got a radio each to receive his commentary. Most people were unknown to each other. Art students possibly, and somewhat freakish. I noticed several nose rings. He would lead us through IKEA. He told us to behave individually, not as a group. Yet in twenty minutes these thirty or so “individuals” had been spotted by the IKEA personnel as a group and eliminated from the system.

The reader should know that Transformalor was not dressed normally. He wore a aluminum-silver bodysuit, his face was colored pink with orange eyelashes. He had a wig of curled wires and along his body dangled telecommunication equipment. In this outfit he moved gracefully, like a ballet-dancer, circling around, looking at nobody in particular. Through the radio-connectors he spoke in grave tone, inaudible to outsiders. As he was very visible he was easily to trace and follow. He floated around, touching objects, sitting down on beds, opening iceboxes, stroking kitchen-sinks.

We, the audience had been instructed not to stick together and basically to make ourselves invisible. We were part of a “retrovolution”. But one aspect I had overlooked: many of the participants took photo’s. Also KS, who after a few photos was approached by personnel to stop taking photos and told to eliminate the ones taken. “No photos allowed”. I was surprised, as the shoppers themselves seemed not to notice. The personnel was easy to recognize, as they wore yellow vests, and soon were seen to call for assistance. We were now followed by some five observers that were clearly suspicious of the unannounced invasion. The situation became more tense when a woman in a light grey jumpsuit started to protest. As a customer she clearly felt disturbed by the unusual behavior of Transformalor.

Most of the personnel had been female, but now male yellow vests appeared. A discussion ensued between an art historian and the security people, while everybody stopped moving. Then the order was given: the whole group should evacuate the building. To my surprise part of a wall was opened, showing the grey outside world, and some half of the participants were ushered out. The other half found the exit on their own by following the arrows on the floor. Outside we gathered, the happening was declared finished. Transformalor went away, leaving an animated, even amused, flock behind.

What were my subjective emotions?

I realized never having been into IKEA myself, though the Scandinavian phenomenon was known to me by the media, especially by its success in Russia. Its modern but cheap image made it popular with a large public. But with my penchant for art and handicraft I privately had never taken the practical decision to go IKEA. I now was surrounded by a mass-produced version of modernity. And found my way in a steady stream of families, mostly beginners, with young children, babies and even in the last phase of pregnancy. They were not only former East Germans. Quite a number of the customers seemed migrants or tourists, even from Asia. So these, I thought, are the explorers of capitalism. The lifestyle equivalent of fast food.

But my subjective emotion was of estrangement, even shock. Perhaps because we entered through (I think) a children‘s toy department, I felt esthetically disturbed, no: visually deprived. The colors struck me as ugly, black and white, blue, primitive. I was in another visual world.

Then a strange delusion set in. Transformalor had been fusing with the behavior around him. Attentively approaching the furniture, appreciating it, entering into a relationship. But it was a different relationship from the buyers, who were appropriating the object, and in a way beginning to love it, before becoming the owner. Trans’s attitude was flighty, ironical. In any case different: he was not going to buy.

I noticed I was confusing the two attitudes, and looking at the potential buyers as if they themselves were in a performance of imitation, of the behavior of Tranformalor. I started to feel amused by the strange behavior of all these customers, being pushed forward by arrows on the floor, being guided by yellow-vested personnel, playing at being interested. I even overheard a short conversation between two fathers. “Did you buy anything? “ “No, of course not!”

The effect of estrangement was strong enough to make me laugh. But that separated me, and perhaps the other participants, from the customers. For them there was nothing to laugh about. They were there for a serious reason. Their purpose was gratification. They had worked hard to now get a reward. Anything like distance seemed to have disappeared, not unlike the earnestness of believers in a church that fuses with the ritual object. Even onlookers could become a disturbance.

I mentioned the migrants or tourists from Asia. They seemed more amused at the antics of Transformalor than disturbed. Perhaps they were strange to IKEA and assumed that the spectacle belonged to the variety of interesting things on offer. Perhaps their culture was less serious, more prone to carnavalesque interludes. They and their children seemed to look at this futuristic elfin as a figure from a comic book. Or a puppet, or a dragon. Not so the Germans. They were disturbed. Shaking their heads. This fantasy was seen as an insult to their way of life.

Thus in no more than twenty minutes IKEA was being transformed. Into a battlefield of a cultural war, till the capitalist consumer police re-established peace.