Visual Monsterisation Strategies

clinton monster

Monsters thrive in the messy swamps of pop culture. They live in the fertile space where classic literary narratives and traditional aesthetic norms are blown apart by visual strategies born at the crossroads between political turmoil and contemporary taste. The particularly adversarial climate of the current American Presidential election campaign proves that monsters are nourished by culture’s incessant need for new imagery.

In an example from a couple of weeks ago, game designer Mike Selinker worked with several illustrators to produce an adaptation of the well known ABC book The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. The original 1963 illustrated book is an assembly of macabre pictures about children meeting their unfortunate ends through such creative mishaps as being “sucked dry by a leech” or being “devoured by mice”.

Gorey Trump

In 26 different images the 2016 persiflage transposes the visual language of the original source directly onto a set of new images. While most of the illustrations in the amusing A-Z feature distorted drawings of Trump, it is the last picture that eventually sees him morph into a tentacled, bog-eyed and bewigged creature, wafting over a dystopian landscape and ushering the little girl Zeitgeist over a cliff. The Trump ABC is a reinterpretation directly addressing a range of policy issues that the illustrators see as marking out the Conservative candidate as unsuitable for the office of Commander in Chief. In doing so it relies heavily on the retention of the original alphabet structure and uses textual elements to deliver its criticism.



This first example shows the ways in which satire allow us to make sense of current issues through already familiar visual contexts. While stealing from or ‘being inspired’ by other art work is one of the most common ways for artists to find authentic expression for their own ideas, most monsterisation processes are a lot more complex than this. Often when a new monster is born, it dodges attempts to be assigned a conclusive meaning. This is not only because it draws its fangs and slimy limbs from a variety of visual sources, it also relies on the violent deformation of forms and contexts. Monsters leech off images that are freely circulating in popular culture. In their bellies they churn around these ideas and regurgitate them into new, puzzling and scary shapes.

When monsters fuse the remnants of several texts and images onto their bodies, it is not only incredibly difficult to make out the exact sources that have served as inspiration; exactly what they are saying, alluding to and achieving also becomes much more ambiguous.

In October a Big Issue magazine featured a cover illustration of Donald Trump in jarring colours reminiscent of the iconic ‘Uncle Sam’ image in which a man points at the onlooker. Big Issue, for those not familiar with the British publishing landscape, is a magazine set up as a social enterprise and which has been around since 1991. It prides itself on producing high-quality journalism and is published on behalf of homeless and vulnerably housed people who are able to support themselves through working as street vendors. The magazine covers are usually laid out in striking colours, sometimes featuring celebrities or allusions to current affairs. The picture on that particular issue is special because it is not merely an amusing picture of a person of current interest, but because Trump has been turned into a zombie-like creature. The aesthetics of the figure are directly informed by the John Carpenter alien invasion B-Movie They Live which was made in response to Reaganomics. In the film a special pair of sunglasses allows the wearer to detect the weaknesses of the American democratic system as personified in the fleshless aliens. Below I hint at the various visual and pop culture influences that have come together in this figure.

Donald Fear

The origin of Uncle Sam as the personification for the United States is apocryphal but likely dates back to at least 1812 when America was, still, or yet again, at war with Britain. It took about a hundred years, until 1916 for the image we know now to solidify into its iconic state. The illustration by artist James Montgomery Flagg appeared first in the magazine Leslie’s Weekly under the title “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” and later, in the Second World War, served as a military enrolment poster. The creature with its exposed jaw and teeth also has distinctly zombie-like features. The idea of Uncle Sam as a zombie is not new: in 1996 — a time in which the States were involved in numerous military operations all over the globe — a horror military comedy lured punters into the cinema with the catchy tagline “Uncle Sam wants you… dead!” Now, this unspecific personification of America’s national pride has been swapped for an actual politician.

This Trump Monster both invokes the uncertainty about America’s future and plays to the popular conceit of a dystopian apocalypse. The flesh is taken off its face, revealing the sinews underneath which are made up of the colours of the American flag. The ‘rotten core’ forms a visual antithesis to Obama’s iconic 2008 election poster in which the colours of the flag are unambiguous and blocky, an image surface on which ‘Hope’ is quite literally projected. Instead, the projection of fear reflects back at us a jarring zombie-esque face, and instead of “Hope” an ironic “Nothing to fear” in a B-Movie alien flick font is splattered across as an ominous warning. The Trump Alien erupts from the complex paradoxes that underlie American history exactly in that moment when the patriotic idea at the core of Uncle Sam is twisted into senseless oblivion by a demagogue.

Wants You


Another example draws heavily from European cultural history. Greek mythology in particular with its unreasonable deities and suffering demi-gods has been a rich source for artist reworkings throughout the millennia. Cursed by the goddess Athena for ‘laying with’ Poseidon in a sacred temple, the snake-headed female Medusa has become a popular choice especially when attacking women in power.


Donald Medusa


Vanity Fair’s illustration by Edward Sorel which depicts Trump as the ancient Gorgon beast appears a strange choice for a refiguration of Trump as monstrous. According to some interpretations of Ovid’s take on the story, Medusa was cursed by Athena after being raped by Poseidon. It introduces a strange irony into the picture to cast a man accused of and bragging about sexual assault in the role of a vilified woman. There is after all a history of female artists of reclaiming monstrous females, such as Medusa, to probe into female relationships (Sylvia Plath, for example, wrote a poem about her mother which alludes to the myth).

The article accompanying the picture discusses the convoluted tax issues around Trump’s business empire. Therefore the central themes of the underlying myth have been completely emptied out and have little bearing on this new monster. Instead, an amusing jibe about Trump’s unruly hair is fused with the symbolic character of the serpent standing in for regeneration. This aspect is perhaps more prominent in the myth of the many-headed snake creature Hydra which regrows a new snake head if one has been hacked off.

More intriguing in context with the same mythical background is this street poster which depicts Democratic nominee Clinton as a female Perseus slaying the Medusa. While the askew Medusa/Trump parallel is still present, the focus of the image is on Clinton dressed as the American comic book super hero Wonder Woman.



In the original myth the alliance between the cursing goddess Athena and the conquering hero Perseus stands opposite the perpetrator Medusa. The two women, according to art historian Marina Warner, act out the conflict between a woman being able to demonstrate and side with masculine strength and female fertility and victimhood (in the moment of death Medusa bears the fantastic beast Chrysaor and the winged horse Pegasus). In the act of violence committed by the new Clinton-Perseus lingers the rejection of traditional binary gender circumscriptions that govern how are females in power are supposed to act.



The picture also alludes to the misogynistic attack that Trump has repeatedly launched at Clinton. On top of the figure the word ‘nasty’ is printed in a celebratory gesture of reclaiming a word that was meant as an insult. The way figure and font are positioned in relation to one another echoes pop artist Beyoncé’s reclaiming of the word ‘feminist’ in one of her performances. Only in taking on the role as the Medusa slayer and exerting violence, the proto-masculin hero turns into an empowered female. For those who want to know more about the Medusa, Elizabeth Johnston has written a great article for The Atlantic examining how throughout history powerful women have been vilified through portraying them as the gorgon.

To finish off this menagerie of political monsters, I would like to share one of my favourite Trump monsterisations. It comes from a blog on tumblr that regularly posts stomach-churning photo manipulations using a different, uglifying strategy.

donald trumo


Instead of overlaying countless intertextual references the artist reduces the facial features of Trump to only a few aspects (hair, chin, mouth) and distorts any human familiarity. It’s a literal defacement of the politician the artist would like to get rid of. This deformation transfixes the perceived human failure of the candidate on moral, ethical and behavioural levels onto the visual body of the new monster.

When new creatures come to life, an awareness for the visual strategies involved in their generation is vital in order to pin down the heavily politicised ideologies behind them. The kinds of monsters we encounter in popular culture are part of the currency of creatively facing contemporary challenges.


The Ghastlycrumb Tinies:

The Ghastlytrump Tinies:

Big Issue

Vanity Fair article:

Vogue endorsement:

Medusa and women in power:

Marina Warner, Monuments & Maidens, (London: Vintage 1996), pp. 113–114.

On Defacement:

Dinild Trimp

Originally published on the Monster Network and on

Posted in Academia, Monsters Tagged with:

Nocturne, Albany

Becoming-fox, a quick manual:
– Keep close to the walls
– Practice your sweet, sweet love-making sounds only after dusk
– Stare the fuckers down

The full moon shines on Deptford town square. It smells of piss and one of the two guys in the corner is chewing down on a shawarma. In front of the community library a retro-vibe installation themed around the human relationship with animals draws in curious onlookers. Abandoned snake skin, various bottles with liquids and trinkets, a dead hare, a TV set plays an episode of Flipper on VHS. A taxidermy fox on its hind legs smiles at me reassuringly and offers a plate of freshly polished apples. Some bunched up flags in the centre of the table signal that I’m about to be confronted with a global issue. As it turns out, shawarma guy and I are going to spend the evening as part of the same group in Andy Field’s new show at the LIFT festival. Realised in collaboration with the Latvian artist Krista Burāne, Nocturne is a promenade piece quite literally – a series of silent walks exploring the area of Deptford and listening in on the sounds of the city, or what the theatre makers call a ‘night song’.

I’ve spent nights in Deptford before and the songs I heard then were neither melodious nor particularly connected to the natural world. I’ve also worked in the local Albany theatre and community buildings. A few years ago foxes, during their nightly excursions, had stolen chickens that the staff had lovingly baptised with names like Chickney Spears. I was ready to listen to what these night-time tricksters might be willing to tell me in their defence. As such, the idea of exploring this alternative night life of the local animals immediately appealed to me.

Before the show starts and we go into the library the audience is divided into small groups. Andy Field asks our group whether we knew to what animal the strange skull with the massive yellow teeth on the far side of the table might have once belonged. I say “Beaver?” Andy nods and I feel like I’ve already proved myself as an ecologically aware human. Shawarma guy looks like he couldn’t care less. Inside we are handed over to a performer who will be leading us on our walks. And soon after we’re off, hanging onto a rope attached to our guide’s belt, making our way across busy streets, past silent church yards, through railway arches and grassy inner-city green lands.

Deptford can be a loud, colourful and messy place but it has recently undergone some significant changes. The speed of the area’s gentrification is breath-taking. The artificial lights from the newly developed high rises reflect in the old Deptford creek and illuminate some ducks. Then on a later walk, a gaggle of geese congregating in the river bed. On our first walk we too are a flock, arranged in a kind of loop behind our guide who is a small, soft-spoken woman with a gentle face. She tries to tune us into the bird song. Animal noises are mixed into the shouts and laughter from the lively housing estate through which we pass and when our guide spots them she walks more slowly and urges us to notice and drink them in. To be honest though, I doubt that shawarma guy’s friend is getting it – he only has a non-committed single finger hooked over the rope that connects us all.

Matt Trueman describes the show as partly a crash course for flaneurs, disrupting the way we navigate urban space,” saying “it’s mostly a reminder that the city is shared.  While I agree that a different way relating to the space and its temporalities emerges, I think that the piece angles towards shifting something a lot more fundamental than the human relationship with space. Rather than being a strolling explorer of our city, the piece probes whether the looping of experience (we do the same walk three times) and fabricating artificial moments of stillness can allow us to tune us into non-human frequencies. It asks whether in some incremental way we can shift something within us. Can theatrical forms facilitate the practice of becoming-animal, or at the very least help us to hear their voices more clearly among the noise of the city?

In the way it tries to explore new relations between humans and animals, Nocturne struggles on a few accounts. In between the walks, there are small interludes working with vocals and material objects that at times feature some surprisingly heavy-handed eco-critical symbolisms. This is easily forgivable, because, at least in my book, the piece has the right politics.

More problematically then, the performance tries little to involve the audience’s own physicality (apart, perhaps, from one-finger guy who keeps treading on my heels). While there is some experimentation with different movement types (such as when we as a group are moved around a little bit like foxes ourselves) the input from the guide during the walks is kept to an absolute minimum. And being on a silent walk means that the mind necessarily wanders. When we see our first fox (one of many that night) I am indeed thrilled, but I also can’t quite get over how the team must have dramaturgically engineered this encounter. The walks are long, stretching out over the whole evening, and towards the end of the second walk my back aches. Little mundane thoughts creep up on me, for example, I keep thinking that it is a shame I left my phone in my bag – by now I would have easily made up my daily step count. Instead of a new embodied experience I am just a little bit beside myself.

Another issue weighs a little heavier. When it shifts its focus away from auditory sensations (by channelling animal sounds through the human vocal chords of the performers into a stunning cacophony), Nocturne becomes quite dependent on the scopic regimes of humans – how we watch and how we are being watched by others. Not only do we look at and compare the changes in ‘natural’ and human habitat throughout the evening, we are also being noticeably looked at by the local residents. If it tries to tune our sensibilities into the non-human life forms, it somewhat lacks a sensitive ear for how the local human residents might perceive this artistic intrusion. Several times people come up and want to know what it is these strange groups of people are doing when prowling their neighbourhood. The answers and interactions in these moments are somewhat dissatisfying and leave a bad taste about how the piece is disconnected from the local land on which it stakes out its eco-critical argument. If set in an area that is being rapidly transformed by capital investment, art must be woke about how itself contributes to the sense of alienation that local residents might feel about that change.

On my solitary walk back to the train station I feel more unsafe than in my pack of pretend-animals; I am a human woman out late at night in London after all. The only sounds I hear are from my headphones feeding a podcast into my ears as reassurance. It is then that one of the foxes and I meet again. I lock eyes with it for a long time and, of course, I still can’t make out what it is trying to tell me. Maybe it just wants me to go away. And so, I do.

Originally written for Exeunt.

Posted in Reviews, Theatre Tagged with:

How did Berlin’s Volksbühne end up in a state of crisis?

Brought in to shake up one of the German capital’s iconic theatres, Chris Dercon aimed to expand its remit and embrace a wider range of art forms. Following his abrupt resignation, Annegret Märten examines for The Stage why his agenda proved unpopular with artists and local residents.


Rapid change at the top of Berlin’s prestigious Volksbühne theatre has gripped and puzzled the German nation. Belgian curator Chris Dercon, who only recently took over from long-time artistic director Frank Castorf, has been forced to resign from his post after only seven months, leaving one of Germany’s most influential stages without creative leadership. The list of whom to blame is embarrassingly long.

Between 1992 and 2017, Castorf and his associates had used the publicly funded building to explore experimental forms of politically charged theatre and redefined what was considered permissible on stage. Finding someone capable of grappling with its cult following and iconic legacy was always going to be challenging. Enter Dercon.

Between 2011 and 2016, Dercon headed the Tate Modern in London, significantly increasing visitor numbers for the gallery. The decision to replace Castorf with Dercon was not popular with regular Volksbühne audiences, staff or ensemble personnel – and especially the Berlin public. Yet the quick resignation was a surprise to even his harshest critics. The reasons for the officially mutually agreed departure are deeply embedded in Berlin politics.

Back in 2015, Castorf had hoped to extend his contract but the then culture senator, social democrat Tim Renner, had other plans. Renner, a former music producer and chairman of Universal Music Germany, had long advocated for what has become known as the ‘Kreativpakt’, an agreement between players within politics, economy and the culture sector for the delivery of a substantial overhaul of working conditions within the German creative industries.

As Berlin’s culture senator, Renner’s vision for the city’s creative sector was for it to play a substantial factor in shaping city development. It seems the Volksbühne was part of this ambition. After two and a half years of negotiation to shift the Volksbühne’s structure and financial investment into new spaces, Renner announced Dercon as Castorf’s successor.

Key to the new directorship would be the development of a theatre representing different art forms, moving away from the established spoken-word format, and the development of Tempelhof, a former airfield in the city centre, into a venue with a capacity of 20,000.

What changed between Renner’s vision of reinvigorating Berlin by remoulding the Volksbühne and Dercon’s premature departure? The short answer is a local election. The long answer: an unsightly public witch-hunt against Dercon in the press and public forums, an occupation of the Volksbühne building, the airport venue proving an unaffordable pipe dream and disappointing audience numbers.

Fuelled by politicians in the run-up to the local senate elections, the threat to the theatre’s ensemble structure gave particular cause for anxiety. An open letter from staff, actors and well-known associated artists expressed concern about the long-established repertoire-theatre model. They believed it was threatened by a curated, festival-like event model, inviting more productions from free groups into the house than it produced. In addition, the relentless personal attacks on Dercon in the German press looked absurdly out of place in a climate of usually temperate cultural discourse.

Dercon and his programme director Marietta Piekenbrock never managed to communicate the merit of their vision for the stage as a laboratory for new formats, in which different art forms could meet and enrich one another. Before Dercon could start working on his first season, attempts to engage with existing audiences were blocked from various sides.

A sustained effort to win over long-term Castorf associate René Pollesch ultimately failed. Pollesch declined invitations for fear of having his artistic freedom stifled under a more controlling artistic leadership. Then an artist-led intervention calling itself Dust to Glitter occupied the Volksbühne just as Dercon and his team were officially due to move in. The protesters were eventually removed by the police.

When the season finally commenced and audience numbers were consistently low, post-election culture senator Klaus Lederer, of socialist party Die Linke, was quick to dispense with Dercon. With Dercon’s departure, the opportunity was lost to overturn some of the patriarchal production structures that had moved into the Volksbühne with Castorf in the 1990s and remain prevalent nationwide.

Dercon’s programme envisioned the theatre as a democratic meeting space, reflecting the changing population of the city, but this was not a change demanded by the population itself. It was thrust upon them through political intervention and resented.

The outgoing artist director, who will still be paid until the end of the season, was not available for comment. However, at the end of April, Dercon gave his view of proceedings at a public event to discuss the systemic crises in European theatre at London’s Goethe-Institut, an organisation that champions German culture abroad.

His highly anticipated first public appearance after the sacking served as reassurance that he would be welcomed back in the UK. “I’m looking for a job!” he joked, before adding, more seriously: “There was never a plan B.”

This wholehearted commitment to his Volksbühne vision makes dealing with the issue particularly delicate.

At the event, Dercon shrewdly analysed the ideological function of the Volksbühne as a projection surface for an idea of Berlin that many currently see threatened.

“Castorf created a mirror,” he said. But, he continued: “Castorf was never nostalgic about the German Democratic Republic. The public, the hipsters and the nipsters, they projected much more of this image on the Volksbühne.”

Citing the increasing internationalisation of the city, Dercon strongly dismissed this nostalgia: “The promises made by Berlin since 1991/92, the promises Berlin made for itself – that Berlin is over. Berlin is becoming a normal city with normal issues. Why should we be hypocritical about it?”

It is unclear who Dercon means by “we”, as he had himself recently moved to Berlin. But his brand of future-facing optimism was not shared by the locals in a city that visibly wears and sometimes consciously picks at the scars of its turbulent history.

The overheated debates seem to relate directly to the cognitive dissonances in Dercon’s argument about communities. He seems at once aware of theatre’s importance for social cohesion while simultaneously disregarding the existing community structures that the Volksbühne space had fostered. A further problem is his contention that theatre work should support transformative progress within a redeveloping city rather than continue to examine those forces that hope to keep the city’s gentrification at bay.

The Volksbühne was caught in the perfect storm of inconsistent political financial planning, a failure to communicate the new programme and perhaps the nostalgic refusal to accept the reality of modern Berlin. These events demonstrate that cultural spaces have a duty to join the conversation about how society is being transformed. In particular, theatre needs to engage with the question of how it shapes a city. In the UK, when new theatres pop up or when spaces are refurbished, the gentrifying impact of these changes requires critical reflection.

Dercon’s failure in Berlin is likely to discourage those in German theatre who hope to break up old structures that many see as hopelessly hierarchical and financially difficult to sustain. One such reformer, Matthias Lilienthal, is leaving his post at Munich’s Kammerspiele in 2020, after only five years. Already, several names for Dercon’s successor are being floated and the protestors who occupied the building are organising a demonstration during the city’s big theatre festival, Theatertreffen. The debate around the future of the Volksbühne is far from over.


Profile: Volksbühne Berlin

Interim director: Klaus Dorr
Managing director: Thomas Walter
Programme director: Marietta Piekenbrock
Founded: 1914
Theatre spaces:
• Volksbühne Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz: Grosser Saal (824 seats); Roter Salon (200 seats); Gruner Salon (200 seats); 3 Stock (60 seats)
• Volksbühne Tempelhof: Capacity up to 20,000 (future uncertain)
• Volksbühne Fullscreen
Number of productions:
• New (2017): 20
• Repertoire (2017): 55
• Co-productions: 0 (2017); 8 (2018, planned)
• Additional events: 10
Audience figures (2016): 167,901
Staff: 227.5 permanent, plus six apprentices
Turnover (2016): €18.5 million (£16.3 million) public funding from the federal state of Berlin; €3 million (£2.6 million) received in ticket sales, donations and other income
Key contact: Johannes Ehmann, head of press;

5 things you need to know about the Volksbühne

1. Throughout the years, key German theatre makers such as Max Reinhardt, Benno Besson, Heiner Muller and Christoph Schlingensief worked at the Volksbuhne.

2. When founded in 1914, the theatre was designed to provide theatre for the working-class masses. The initial slogan above its door was ‘Kunst dem Volke’, meaning ‘art for the people’.

3. In the 1920s, during the Weimar Republic, director Erwin Piscator established the Volksbuhne as a hotbed for experimental practice.

4. During the Second World War, the theatre was heavily damaged in the bombing of Berlin.

5. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall and during the protests of 1989, the Volksbühne was an important space in which dissidents, artists and student protesters came together.

Image Credit: David Baltzer

Posted in Features, Theatertreffen Tagged with:

Theatertreffen’s role as a barometer of German theatre

While it is primarily a showcase for the best German-language drama, the Berlin festival is also a forum for heated industry debate. For The Stage.

This May, the 55th annual Theatertreffen Berlin honours the past year’s 10 best productions from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, inviting them to be restaged in the German capital. Nominated by a jury of seven industry professionals who view productions all year round, the selection attempts to capture the essence and breadth of contemporary German theatre.

This year, some well-established theatremakers’ work is recognised, including Frank Castorf’s version of Goethe’s Faust and Thomas Ostermeier’s Return to Reims for the Schaubühne. Ostermeier is known to London audiences through productions of Hamlet and Richard III, which had short runs at the Barbican.

Refreshingly, an array of younger and more diverse voices is also being showcased this year. The black, female theatremaker Anta Helena Recke, who works in Munich but was based in London for a decade, has been invited to present a piece that brings the neglected issue of black representation on German stages to the fore.

Her production of Mittelreich, a dark musical theatre piece, at Munich’s Kammerspiele is an almost perfect copy of Anna-Sophie Mahler’s 2015 production at the same theatre. By replacing the original’s all-white cast with actors of colour at a theatre in the heart of conservative Bavaria, the director’s appropriation technique throws up questions of inequality both in theatre and in wider society.

Karin Henkel’s Loot. Women. War, a feminist reworking of Euripides’ The Trojan Women and Iphigenia in Aulis, has also been selected. Already a household name in Germany, Henkel will receive the renowned annual award, Theaterpreis Berlin.

Director Falk Richter has previously taken up arms against the right-wing party AfD (Alternative for Germany), which tried to censor his piece FEAR. This year, his staging of Elfriede Jelinek’s new work Am Königsweg (‘On the Royal Road’), inspired by the election of Donald Trump, is also part of the Theatertreffen selection.

As well as recognising influential productions, Theatertreffen has long been a forum for conversations about challenges faced by the sector. This usually relates to issues of industry structures and funding via the city theatre model, but sometimes more specific rows come to the fore.

In 2015, for example, Castorf’s loose adaptation of Brecht’s Baal resulted in an injunction against performing the piece by the Brecht estate. To counter the artistic censure in the legal case, Theatertreffen hosted the work, successfully forcing an extra staging as part of the festival.

This year, the Theatertreffen jury has waded into the debate about replacing Castorf at the Volksbuhne with former Tate Modern curator Chris Dercon. The jury nominated both Castorf’s seven-hour Faust and an immersive piece by Vegard Vinge, an enfant terrible associated with the Volksbühne. This is both a homage to a quarter-century of Castorf’s post-dramatic aesthetics of excess and a critical riposte to the failed attempt to regenerate the Volksbühne through local cultural politics.

In its role as a producer of debate, the festival does more than simply survey the state of the German theatre industry. It shows that in Berlin, theatre is never just about the plays.

Theatertreffen Berlin takes place from May 4 to 21.

Image Credit: Arno Declair

Posted in Features, Theatertreffen Tagged with:

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