An Artist Suspected Of Terrorism
The German artist Christoph Faulhaber was awarded a state grant in 2007 and invited to exhibit his project “Mister Security,” in the United States in September 2008. But suddenly, the FBI started investigating him and he had to leave the country.
In retrospect, one has to really ask how it all could have come to this. All those involved knew the artist’s project dealt with security and state power. And yet, Christoph Faulhaber, who had been awarded a grant by the State of Rhineland Palatinate for a six-month residency at Location One in New York, was forced to abort his project after just two weeks.
The expulsion was triggered by a visit from two FBI officers raising concerns over his “Mister Security” project in New York. From then on, the 36-year-old Faulhaber was considered a threat and was forced to leave the country. “Suddenly I found myself all on my own, the entire support network faded away,” recounted the artist, who documented his experiences in New York and the consequences in his autobiographical work “Ich wie es wirklich war” (“Me the way it really was”).
The controversial concept of the project, on which Faulhaber based his application and earned his grant, would later become the very cause of his expulsion. In 2005 he founded the fictitious protection company “Mister Security.” Together with his colleague Lukasz Chrobok, they showed up wearing bomber jackets and holding photo cameras outside German and foreign US embassies and consulates in order to “observe public space,” as the artists declared. The sometimes curt, sometimes crude reactions of the police officers (“Your shoes look like my old work shoes”) were – without their knowledge – recorded by the artist with a dictaphone and subsequently published along with pictures from hidden cameras in the catalogue “Mister Security. To serve and observe.”
One of the goals of the intervention was to demonstrate “how one’s rights are being restricted as a result of the prima facie assumption that one is a terrorist.” In retrospect, it is obvious that information about Faulhaber’s artistic activities were directly passed on to the American security authorities, as it took several months for the artist to be granted a US visa.
According to Faulhaber: “Due to my work dealing with political issues (Surveillance, Security, Terror, Guantanamo) I was rejected from obtaining the visa. It took several letters from the ministry of culture addressing this issue to the US Ambassador in Berlin to finally obtain the visa.”
The next hurdle appeared at the airport in New York [JFK], where the artist landed on September 1st, 2008: “The pilot announced that all of the passengers should have their passports ready upon leaving the plane,” Faulhaber explained. “When it came to check my documents, an officer called: ‘I got him, let’s go’.” The artist was subsequently subjected to official procedure for terrorist suspects.
Obscure faxes, hysteria – and always the FBI
The artist was interrogated for hours. In addition, Faulhaber’s suitcase was searched and all documents in it were photocopied. “I had working material I had gathered for half a year with me, including newspaper reports about September 11 and Japanese women who torture cats with stilettos,” the artist said. After he was finally permitted to enter the country and was given his documents back, he was surprised to find two classified faxes sent by US security institutions dealing with his ‘case’. A mistake? Was he being set up? To this day Faulhaber does not know the answer for sure.
Four days later two agents from the FBI’s Counter-Terrorism Department came to the Location One premises in SoHo to ask the artist more questions. In the end, the officers became part of the artist’s “Mister Security” project. Shortly after their visit, Claire Montgomery, the director of New York’s Location One, who had invited Christoph Faulhaber to exhibit, informed him that he had to leave their institution for security reasons. Thus, the collaboration was terminated, the artist’s grant was subsequently revoked by the state foundation and his apartment lease was cancelled effective immediately. Faulhaber, at this point in a state of panic due to all the hysteria surrounding his case, handed the two obscure faxes to the legal department of the German Embassy. He no longer had the courage to take them with him. Feeling hounded, the artist decided to do a “last barbecue in the park,” during which he burnt all the copies he had made earlier, but not before memorizing the contents by heart – which dealt with insufficient information about his person.
Once he returned to Germany, he was contacted by Danièle Perrier, the director of the artists’ residence Schloss Balmoral in Bad Ems, who was responsible for awarding grants. Perrier informed him that the basis for his grant had been a contract with the artists’ residence, Location One. Moreover, this institution had the right to cancel the residency at any time “due to misconduct or gross negligence on the part of the artist or within 30 days for any other reason.” A legal suit followed. In the end, Christoph Faulhaber was paid a compensation of 7000 Euros and was struck off the list of grant recipients.
On the occasion of an exhibition and artist talk in Frankfurt (in 2009), one audience member wanted to know whether the events couldn’t be interpreted as a stroke of good fortune for his art. Faulhaber replied laconically: “At this rate, I’m afraid I’ll never be able to stop.”
This text has been edited from an article by Sandra Danicke, published in Art-Das Kunstmagazin, March 2009
This case has been publicized in German media, but was never made public in the U.S.
Many thanks to Jasmina Tumbas and Michael Scuffil for translation and editing assistance.