Baby Don’t Hurt Me

Eliel Jones on Alexa Karolinski and Ingo Niermann’s Army of Love

Alexa Karolinski and Ingo Niermann, Army of Love, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 42 minutes. Installation view, Auto Italia, London. Photograph: Lucy Parakhina.

ALEXA KAROLINSKI AND INGO NIERMANN make war movies about love. Their two moving-image works to date, both currently on view at Auto Italia in London, are premised on the existence of an Army of Love, an entity as real as it is speculative, comprising a motley cluster of volunteers—soldiers spanning sexualities, generations, abilities, and ethnicities—whose purpose is “to offer all-encompassing love . . . to those who need it.” It is an imperative at once simple and extraordinarily difficult. Love here is understood as a practice involving “care, desire, sex, and respect,” indiscriminate of its receiver. Though love is arguably necessary for survival, the increasing commoditization and standardization of desire appoints certain bodies as more loveable and capable of loving. Contrary to romantic traditions that understand love as a personal act of involuntary passion, the Army of Love invites its soldiers to practice sensuality, affection, and care as forms of radical redistribution.

A world that, like ours, operates by the whims of consumerism, where intimacy is enabled through technologies of aesthetic choice, provides the invisible backdrop for Army of Love, a forty-two-minute docu-fiction video that introduced Karolinski and Niermann’s troops at the Ninth Berlin Biennale in 2016. Filmed in an indoor spa, the soldiers appear to be undergoing rehabilitation treatment, in which their well-being is determined by their physical and affective proximity to other bodies. Touching is welcomed by all soldiers, across generational gaps and physical differences. Consent is enabled through the trust that is placed in choosing to love one another, a choice presented throughout the video as a political act. In voice-over, participants often equate “love as choice” with freedom, claiming it as a universal right curtailed by capitalist society’s stranglehold on desire. As they talk, we watch them engage in candid expressions of affection shot with slow, sensitive camerawork. In a pool, for example, the warriors take turns holding each other while walking. The carrying of bodies in water, no matter their shape, size, or skill, is of no burden to the carrier. So much of what these depictions of loving reveal is the necessary condition of dependency—or of surrender, in the words of disability activist and Army of Love soldier Matthias Vernaldi—that these actions require. For the army’s mission of providing universal love to be fulfilled, surrendering becomes as much a question of giving one’s body to others as it is of transforming the ideological structures that comprehend this act as a sacrifice.

Alexa Karolinski and Ingo Niermann, Oceano de amor, 2019, HD video color, sound, 95 minutes. Installation view, Auto Italia, London. Photograph: Lucy Parakhina.

Doubling down on this argument, Oceano de amor (Ocean of Love, 2019) considers a future where the main task of all humans is to give and receive love. All other work is outsourced to robots. Set in Cuba and realized with a group of ten new local recruits, the Army of Love gains another layer of meaning in one of the few remaining socialist countries. Socializing love may seem to some of Oceano de amor’s viewers like a radically new undertaking, but the project of loving beyond the traditional family unit has a deep-rooted politics, one that Niermann has previously sought to probe as the editor of Solution 247-261: Love, a collection of texts published by Stenberg Press in 2013. A bit regrettably, Karolinski and Niermann’s latest video declines to historicize these efforts, which reach back to early Christianity, the Romantics, and Bolshevism, before landing with a thud as the bohemian “free love” campaign of counterculture America. What the work does offer, however, is a firsthand contemporary analysis of the state of love, one that jostles between imagining a utopian post-work society and representing the real world of the army’s participants. These include a trans pharmacist who supplements her income as a sex worker, a young woman who barely scrapes by as a caregiver for her mother, and a male model who may soon age out of his profession. In their present-tense narratives, love becomes a form of work that fuels contingency rather than paradise.

If the army’s proposition to cast love-comradeship as the ultimate productive and reproductive activity reorients the project of a socialist state by focusing on immaterial and affective labor, it cannot do so without heavily depending on the emotional work of women, queers, nonwhite folk, and people with disabilities—all of whom already, so often, perform care for others. Putting this utopian future into practice in the context of a patriarchal, production-oriented, white supremacist and ableist society is of course the army’s most challenging undertaking. What processes of learning and unlearning will be necessary to universally define what love is? Can loving be wrong or painful when it is accepted and given by all? Will it need to be regulated in any way? And if so, who will be its regulator? Who will have to forgive? Who will be forgiven?

Standing once again in an almost baptismal water, the soldiers of Oceano de amor embrace one another in pairs and groups to the sound of artist Hannah Weinberger’s sensuous vocals. At one point, the camera focuses on two female participants. One woman’s palms cradle the cheeks of the other, who in turn rests her hands on her partner’s shoulders. When one of them starts crying, the other extends her arms around her, the tear-stricken face sinking into her chest. When the consoler pulls away momentarily, she realizes that love has already opened something that cannot be contained. She, too, begins to weep, and both return to each other’s bodies to share the burden of grief. If “hapticality,” as the theorist Fred Moten defines it, is “the capacity to feel through others, for others to feel through you, for you to feel them feeling you,” its realization here, as shared with generosity by the Army of Love’s soldiers, enacts a politics of touch that enshrines receiving love as a right, the act of giving it a form of justice.

Army of Love and Oceano de amor are screening at Auto Italia gallery in London through December 8, 2019.