Under a white London sky in October 2019, I entered the deep red interior of Alexa Karolinski and Ingo Niermann’s exhibition Army of Love at Auto Italia South East. Two wall- wide films were playing in conjoined spaces. The first, Army of Love (2016), is a kind of documentary-campaign for the larger Army of Love, filming participants as they conduct various exercises of physical affection inside a Berlin spa. The next, Oceano de Amor (2019), was produced in Cuba and debuted in this exhibition. Set on the shore of an ocean, a new set of participants imagine the possibilities of an automated future in which the distribution of love is the only form of work.
The Army of Love is a highly utopian project and yet its basis lies in a series of practical elements. In the dark of the exhibition space, a pile of take-home sheets offered the Army’s ‘code of ethics’, an ever-evolving set of guidelines for participation. It begins: ‘The Army of Love offers unconditional, encompassing love—care, desire, sex, and respect—to all who need it.’ At the same time, ‘No matter how many people are suffering from physical or mental loneliness, it does not make love per se a good deed. To be loved wrongly can be just as annoying or painful as not to be loved enough.’ The code continues for four pages.
Arriving to this project with some skepticism and a number of questions, I spent time speaking with Ingo Niermann about the Army of Love’s timeline as well as its possible future implications.
Where did the Army of Love begin?
It started with a short story in 2006. It was actually a really silly commission for a gallery in Berlin. It was for a summer group show titled Once Upon a Time in the West. The only way for me to deal with this kind of invitation is to take it even more seriously than they would expect.
The gallerists had just bought a villa in Zehlendorf, a very traditional, bourgeois suburb of Berlin. This villa suburbia blossomed around 1900 when they built an S-Bahn stop. It struck me that this was kind of like the film Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), with the railway. They showed me the house and they said, ‘down here will be the party basement.’
In the story I imagined all of the artists in the show hanging out in this basement. They party hard and then they start thinking: what could be next; what could be the new challenge in their lives as fairly well-established mid- career artists? And this conversation ends up on love, a new understanding of love. The story ended with ‘to be continued.’ The gallery never published it.
Later, in 2013, you published the story under the title The Completists. Could you describe completism?
The ideological skeleton of the Army of Love is what I call completism. It came from this thinking around redistribution, of equality, of justice; of pushing these further than current notions. My problem with communism is not that it’s too radical, but that it has not been thought radically enough. Completism adds to the redistribution of material goods with the redistribution of sensual love. In 2013 I went public with the idea of completism. At that point I had started writing the novel Complete Love.
How did the film then come about?
When I was about to publish the novel, I got invited to participate in the Berlin Biennale. I wanted to somehow enact the novel. I was thinking of this particular square at the centre of Berlin, Alexanderplatz. The original plan was to realise a camp completely at the centre of this highly commercialised zone, but it became logistically complicated. We were trying to stay too close to the novel. So we decided to do something simple: a promotion video for the Army of Love. With filmmaker Alexa Karolinski, I realised this film in a spa in Berlin. About a month later, for the Wiesbaden Biennale, artist Dora García and I organised the first two-day recruitment and training. It also ended up in a spa. These recruitments became a practice.
You developed the training format after you'd made the film?
It happened in parallel. The shooting of the film was the first implementation of the Army of Love. We sent an email around briefly describing the project, and asking people to come together if they could identify with this idea, to join and experiment on this. People brought up ideas of what this could actually be. Tarren Johnson, a choreographer, proposed some exercises.
While we were still editing the film, I was working with Dora García on the recruitments. Through workshops we started gathering some exercises. Everything is taken from someone from a particular context.
How many people are in the Army of Love now? How is it maintained?
I would say that the Army of Love still doesn’t exist in a proper sense. At the core it exists with maybe ten to fifteen people who identify enough, know enough, are aware of the complexity of the whole thing, and are motivated to do recruitment training. In this group there are some sex activists with disabilities, some people who have a background in different kinds of therapeutical work, in dance, in social work, in film or in art. This is not a solid entity. I think it’s a very complex enterprise.
From the beginning you’ve used this vocabulary of war, of the army, with recruitments and training camps. Why is this necessary? I’m especially curious about the ‘code of ethics’.
The idea is to be armed with love. With the term ‘army’ I wanted to get away from ideas of the summer of love, free love, hippy love, free hugs, all you need is love. I’m very skeptical of this. I see the violent implications of love. It’s also why I’m reluctant to establish the Army of Love to the full extent.
You have to be very aware, in so many ways, that you actually cannot be aware of all the things that can go wrong, so you have to drill yourself. It requires a willingness to intuitively do the right thing, through training. This is what the code of ethics is about.
Our recruitments are not very structured. There’s a lot of spontaneity. It’s okay that things can go wrong. But considering how sensitive this task is, think of all the possibilities for abuse or miscommunication. The code of ethics gives people ways to supervise their own behavior, without turning it into an administrative nightmare.
In terms of the physical encounter, would you describe this as a form of energy healing?
Some exercises do come from this context, or are also used in this context, but I would be very careful with a mystically loaded term like energy. All exercises are meant to infuse your ability to love and be loved.
We choose and develop exercises that are hard to fail at. You don’t have to be good at something, or flexible or concerned about asking ‘is this satisfying?’ It’s very important not to think too much about mutuality. You can give when you feel like it and receive when you feel like it. There does not have to be a balance. Our love does not have to be a proper exchange.
How does this lead into the more recent film, Oceano de Amor? What is the importance of location?
The original idea was to do it in a suburb of Los Angeles (LA), in San Bernadino, closer to where Alexa lives. We wanted to get people with a different social background involved. Not just from a creative or intellectual scene, which dominated the first film. We wanted to do an outdoor scene on the beach, but getting permissions turned out to be complex. And the distances in LA are so big. People work so much, they often have two jobs. It’s difficult to bring people together at one time.
Cuba cropped up as a scenario and soon it seemed so obvious. I had been there a few times. This is the last country that is, at least on paper, a socialist country. You can criticise this regime for many, many things, but at the same time it’s the last enclave of socialism. People don’t work that much, they’re a bit more relaxed. So it seemed possible to do it there. We changed plans on very short notice. In summer 2018 we shot the film. We made an open call there. There was actually a lot of enthusiasm.
How was the open call distributed?
In different ways. The internet does not work so well there, so in the end we organised it via a casting agency. It also gave us a place where we could all meet. The call was basically the same as in Berlin. We gave a brief description, asking if people could identify with it. Then we would meet and talk about it and see if people were fully committed to the idea.
We all had lengthy discussions and everyone already had their own ideas of what to do and how it could work. This time we developed possible exercises with a local choreographer. In the end we didn’t use any of them. The film is really just improvising. Everyone came together at the beach for one day and we were basically just following them. It was really a documentation of what happened.
Is this different to how documentation functions in other areas of this project?
Well, in the recruitments there is hardly any documentation, which I think is important. The participants shouldn’t feel observed. Spectacular things happen in the recruitments, but usually we are so overwhelmed by it. I realise it would be good sometimes to at least write down what happened, what did and didn’t work out.
Yes, like a kind of reference archive. In terms of the open call format, how did Ricardo come to want to participate in the Army of Love? I’m surprised, because he seems so resistant in the film.
He said his mother had died, and he was very sad. He lost the most important person in his life, kind of the only human love in his life. In the first film all the people identify as members of the Army of Love, as able to give love and as having special or different abilities to give love. And then in the second film Ricardo is an exception as a person clearly in need, but not easy in receiving it. I think Ana Ibis is as well, who is living with her mother, who has dementia. In the end, I think she was the person being most overwhelmed. Her life is dominated by poverty, but she also says she needs love.
I didn’t see Ricardo in the scene where everyone is dancing.
We always asked Ricardo if he’s fine with the situation, saying that he doesn’t have to participate in anything, only go for what you really want. He didn’t feel comfortable with dancing.
There are people coming to the recruitments that haven’t been intimate for many years and who have issues with it, and who see the Army of Love as a safe space to experience some intimacy. Also because it occurs within a limited period of time, and they can decide at every moment if they want to participate.
For some people our training is just a nice physical experience, and for others it’s very powerful. This is something that you need to really be careful with, when you sense how potent love is, how intensely dangerous. But I think, so far, it has always worked out.
Where does this go from here?
I have been finishing a short film called Sea Lovers. It’s exploring a more intimate relation to the ocean. I try to be careful in not being paternalistic about what people and creatures need or don’t need. This new film is very speculative. For example, how could we be hugged by the sea? A kind of reverse of the tree hug. There is also a new solution book on the ocean coming out, titled Mare Amoris. This is something I’ve been wondering about since the very beginning, how to get beyond only a human interaction.
To be honest, I don’t know what comes next for the Army of Love. It’s a really slow process, and the perception of it has changed so much. You really caught me in the middle of thinking ... I think we’ve reached a certain plateau, an eloquence, which I sensed in the last recruitments that we did.
We must also experiment in fields where we are not so secure. This will be the next challenge. I have a lot of patience with this idea. For me, this started more than thirteen years ago.
Laura Brown is a writer, curator, and editor living in New York.