‘Is this the most awful/hilarious thing ever?’ asked @BenjaminFMoser in my Twitter feed yesterday. I followed him to a British blog which collects Grindr profiles featuring photographs taken inside the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.
Covering over 18 000 square metres, the rows and rows of blank cement blocks that make up the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in central Berlin are a compelling place to visit. I did so twice: once when the memorial was under construction in 2004, at which time it seemed vast and much discussed, and again in 2010, when it had blended somewhat into the monumental surrounds. According to designer Peter Eisenman, the cement blocks or stelae are designed to ‘produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere’; an ‘ordered system that has lost touch with human reason’. Although not universally praised, the construction of the memorial – exclusively to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust – was a big deal to Germans, and the subject of argument about appropriate ways to remember.
Memorialisation is one of Germany’s strongest methods for dealing with past traumas, but in contrast to the Jewish Museum in Kreuzberg, which positions the visitor as an active participant in history – walking on metal faces, or being shut into a dark room – the Holocaust Memorial is more like a vast, lifeless, impersonal cemetery, which gives a sense of the scale of death, but doesn’t bring the human back (arguably an impossibility). Like the nearby Topography of Terror it has become a tourist attraction, partly stripped of its horror. Intended for disruptive contemplation, it has quickly become a fun place to hang out and take hot selfies.
Perhaps Eisenman underestimated human beings’ liking for uneasy atmospheres. The scale, impersonal nature and quirky design elements of the memorial make it a comfortable place to explore, rather like a labyrinth. But there’s something more happening here. ‘Totem and Taboo: Grindr remembers the holocaust’ is disturbing because it is a portrait of a human failing. These images represent the ahistorical reality of online encounters. As we have slowly become ‘users’ instead of people, we have carved out new public spaces, falsely distinct from physical spaces, and in these new spaces, the past cannot infiltrate. At nearly four years, Grindr’s new space is old now, and its users are slowly building their own moral code, and their own forgetfulness. With 3.5 million users in 192 countries, Grindr is as much a public space as a specialist enterprise. It’s a place where people carve out their identities and share ways of being. It is a social realm much like the other specific social realms we now inhabit, as projections of ourselves. Those projections can never quite hide our flaws. And yet our internet selves attempt to abdicate from the real world’s responsibilities, as if shameful memories can be disappeared in this new atemporal landscape. Of all people, surely it is LGBTQI people who would have learned by now that we cannot run from shame.
An estimated 15 000 gays and lesbians were murdered in the Holocaust. The number is hard to pin down because homosexuality remained criminal in Germany after 1945 and many of the victims went uncounted. The deaths of LGBTQI people in the camps were hardly discussed in Germany until the 1980s. The history of the Holocaust is the history of homosexuality. It is ours to care for. And it is close at our heels: Berlin’s own memorial to Hitler’s homosexual victims, built across the road in the Tiergarten in May 2008, was vandalised within months.
As well as Grindr users’ failure to see their own awful history, homosexual men fail to see themselves as an oppressed group any more, as a group that needs and desires solidarity with other groups. This is, in part, a result of increased social acceptability of homosexuality. Some of these profiles are explicitly racist, though there is still argument about whether ethnically exclusive dating is racist (I think it is). These predominantly white males have not forgotten because they are evil; they have forgotten because they have so much incentive to forget. That is privilege in action – the privilege of amnesia. When the world is a smorgasbord of casual hookups, the opportunities to forget are everywhere. How quick we are to accept them.
Just as these profile shots are the internet, ‘Grindr remembers’ is also the internet: holding itself up to scrutiny. In doing so, it is both drawing our attention to this forgetting, and making its own kind of memorial. A blog that cheekily reminds us to ‘Be the change you want to see in the world,’ it prompts bigger questions – questions we are only clumsily beginning to ask. How, in our seemingly ahistoric realms online, do we remember the past? How do we hold one another accountable? And another question, barely asked: who benefits from keeping us in this eternal selfish present?
This kind of phenomenon isn’t going to go away simply by shaming individuals for their ignorance. Grindr is only a single example of our ability, as image-dominated social media users, to reduce the world – and ourselves – to commodities. By decontextualising ourselves from our own cultural histories and our membership in a common humanity, we not only forget, we fail to bear witness – not only to the past, but to the injustices which go on all around us. While these images were taken, fascists were gathering literally just around the corner. We don’t even need to consider the present rise of fascism in Europe for this collection of images to become utterly haunting. Death by homosexuality is all around us still, in Uganda, in Moscow, in the USA, and in our own families. When we forget our histories, the erasure of the present follows close behind.