dark clouds over germany
Art in Ruins always enjoyed going to Cologne, and in 1991 we were there for the Art Fair, once again. This year we had brought along Mariko Mori and Critical Décor, David Pugh and Toby Morgan. As usual, after a long day at the Fair there followed a long evening drinking along with everyone else at Spitz Bar. As it got late we decided it was time to walk across town and through the station back to the hotel.
There were not so many people around and once we were inside the station David, Toby and Mariko decided to buy something from a kiosk near to a ticket machine. Hannah went with them to help out with the German whilst I stood patiently nearby. Just then a tall man with long straggly hair came towards me and shouted something loudly in German which I took mean that he was asking me if I had change for the ticket machine.
I replied that I did not speak German and had no change. He glared at me with anger and pushing his face towards me, spat out … “Ausländer!” He then reached inside his leather jacket and pulled out a gun, which he raised to the right side of my head.
As I stood frozen to the spot, with a look of hatred he repeated “Ausländer ….. raus!” He put the gun back into the inside pocket of his jacket and strode off in search of change elsewhere.
Just then, Mariko who seemed to have witnessed the whole thing ran over to me screaming in disbelief “I saw it! I saw it! ……. was it a real gun?!” At that moment it suddenly flashed through my mind that I had recently read an essay by Jean Baudrillard where he argues that to commit a robbery with a gun is against the law and a crime, but to commit a robbery with a fake gun is also against the symbolic law – a sign crime.
In a flash I replied “What difference does it make?”
David and Toby, being the worse for wear, decided to stagger back to the hotel, with Mariko trying to tell them what she had just seen, whilst we decided to find the police. Me and Hannah walked around and around but could not see any police on duty anywhere in the station. We knew that it was late but this seemed unusual. Finally we managed to find a police office at the far end of the station. We went inside and saw an unmanned reception desk.
I went a couple of steps further into the office and saw half a dozen uniformed policemen watching a football match on an overhead colour TV screen. One officer noticed me and strode purposefully towards the reception desk and asked what it was we wanted. I explained that I did not speak German and tried to tell him what had happened. Another police officer came and stood next to me and with sign language, pointing to his revolver and then to my head, I managed to get it through to them that there was someone wandering around the station with a gun, threatening strangers.
Suddenly, the police station became a hive of activity. Off went the TV screen, and on went their headgear as they left the office in twos and more officers began to arrive with police dogs. Two plain-clothes police came into the office and indicated that we were to go with them around the station to try and find the man.
We felt rather foolish walking purposefully through a semi-deserted railway station at midnight with two armed plain-clothes police officers who were conspicuously armed police officers. Particularly as they insisted on loudly indicating that we were to stay close to them, which made us feel somewhat vulnerable. The four of us walked around and around and around the station with no sign of him.
Eventually they decided that we should exit the station and walk up to the concourse. Still there was no sign, and at this point I began to feel somewhat relieved. It seemed that our search was in vain and we started to walk back towards the station. As we re-entered one of the plain-clothes policemen asked me if I could see him anywhere down below inside the station. Lo and behold, I looked down and there in the far distance I saw a tall hunched figure with oversized cowboy boots loping across the platform. I pointed and said …. “That’s him, there!”
They drew their guns and began to run down the steps of the concourse into the station below, shouting that we were to stay close by them. I turned to Hannah and indicated that we should hang back.
Then, as we descended the steps we could see in the distance a man face down on the ground with his hands behind his back, with one policeman’s foot on his neck and his gun pointed at his head, and the other officer crouching holding his gun with both hands in front of him pointed at the suspect.
At that moment I suddenly panicked and turned to Hannah and said “Suppose it’s not him ….?” As soon as I said this, however, I looked back at the scene and whilst one policeman pulled the man’s head upwards, the other reached into his jacket and, much to my relief, pulled out a gun. The two policemen looked visibly relieved and I noticed that they were both shaking as they led him towards the police office and ordered us to follow.
We then had to sit there, on a bench facing the man on the bench opposite, for what seemed like hours. He cursed us and pleaded with the police to be told what it was he was supposed to have done. It turned out that we were all waiting for an English translator to be found so that I could give a written statement. Finally, at three o’clock in the morning we were allowed to leave.
The translator told us that it was a gas gun (“…. whatever that is,” I thought to myself) with one cartridge missing, and that he was denying everything now, but after a night in the cells he would not be in the morning.
Some months later we arrived in Berlin for our DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst Künsterprogram) residency. One of the first things that we were required to do as guests of the DAAD was to register our address in Berlin with the local police. Within a couple of days an official-looking letter arrived from Cologne. As we couldn’t understand it we took it to the DAAD office. We were told that I was required to attend a court hearing in Cologne in ten days’ time and that this was mandatory, with a fine if I failed to turn up.
Although we had given our address in London to the police in Cologne, having heard nothing from them we had assumed that the matter had been dealt with in our absence. This however, was obviously not the case.
We arrived back in Cologne in the early morning and took a taxi to the court house. There was no-one around except a tall man in a new looking brown suit with short hair walking nervously up and down the corridor. “It’s him” I said quietly to Hannah, “he’s smartened himself up …..” So there we were again with him, with no-one else around, as he looked us up and down. “This is a nightmare” I said quietly “let’s get out until someone else arrives.”
As we walked back toward the entrance, a tall woman in a smart suit arrived and introduced herself as the court translator. She briefly explained the formalities of the German legal system and attempted to put me at my ease.
We filed into the court and if I remember correctly, I sat facing the three judges with the translator next to me, Hannah over to the right, and the newly groomed culprit in the dock to the left. The translator had already explained to me that she would read my statement in German to the judges and asked me if there was anything more that I felt I needed to add.
When she had finished reading the statement he was asked to plead. He pleaded guilty. With his eyes fixed on me he informed the translator that he wished to speak directly to me. She said that he wanted to tell me that he was drunk at the time; (“ …. well, is that supposed to make me feel better?” I thought to myself.) She said that he wishes to apologise. I looked impassively back at him.
One of the judges indicated to the translator that he wanted to ask me just one question. I knew already what it was going to be. She said “The judge would like to know whether you believed at that time that the gun was real?”
I turned to look at the man on trial and said “Yes, at the moment he pointed the gun at my head I believed it was real.” His face dropped and his body sagged, and he knew that he was in trouble. The judge nodded.
Then the translator asked me “Is there anything you wish to say to the court before sentencing?”
“Yes,” I said, looking across at him “please tell him that he is lucky to be alive …..”
I felt everyone’s eyes upon me as he looked at me with incomprehension. “….. because the two policemen who arrested him, with loaded guns pointed at his head, hands shaking in fear….. also believed the gun was real ……”
“Do you want to stay to hear the sentence?” she asked.
“No” I said, and we left the court.