A Berlin Art Collective Is Trolling German Weapons Makers

Peng! is taking on the arms industry in hopes of changing Germany's weapons export laws.

An actor holds the fake peace prize that Peng awarded to ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems. Image courtesy Peng! Collective.

A German collective of artivists that goes by the name of Peng! has made a goal of bringing down the German arms industry. One prank at a time.

In one of its most recent stunts, the group sent out a recall letter, written in the name of the “head of transatlantic sales” of the German firearms manufacturing giant Heckler & Koch, to 300 of its American retailers.

The letter, sent out in late April, stated that starting May 1, the company would cease to supply guns to the US market, explaining that, after Heckler & Koch’s export policy had come under ethical review, the US was no longer considered a safe place to sell firearms.

The group made their prank public via Twitter on May 5, addressing Heckler & Koch directly to notify them.

Heckler & Koch—which actually had recently re-evaluated its ethical standards in 2015, following a scandal selling its wares to prohibited states in Mexico—was hardly amused, and saw itself as “victims” of a “vicious cyber-attack,” according to the fake recall website set up by Peng. (Heckler & Koch did not return artnet News’ request for comment on the matter.)

“The pirated letter was our weapon of hope! This little ditty reached 300 gun retailers in the north east, spread tactical confusion in alt-right gun forums, and even made it on the evening news,” the group stated.

Jessica Gräber from the Peng collective tells artnet News that they targeted Heckler & Koch in particular for its status as the largest producer of small arms in Germany, and one of the top five worldwide. The company’s weapons, Peng claims, “can be found in nearly all the conflict zones and crisis regions of the world.”

“When your business is death, you can’t really have ethical standards,” says Gräber.

Guns laws and art stunts

Peng aims to help change German gun law, and the Heckler & Koch stunt is just one of a recent series of targeted pranks by the collective invoking Article 26 of the German constitution. It states, “Acts tending to and undertaken with intent to disturb the peaceful relations between nations, especially to prepare for a war of aggression, shall be unconstitutional.”

As part of its tripartite Article 26 campaign, the Berlin-based group, which was previously featured in DIS-Magazine’s 9th Berlin Biennale, also faked a campaign for the ruling German CDU party—of which Angela Merkel is the chairwoman—that saw the party returning to its Christian roots to oppose small arms exports.

A fake campaign for the CDU, created by the Peng! Collective. The text reads, "CDU. With. Feeling. Germany renounces small arms exports." Image courtesy Peng! Collective.

A fake campaign for the CDU, created by the Peng! Collective. The text reads, “CDU. With. Feeling. Germany renounces small arms exports.” Image courtesy Peng! Collective.

Gräber explains, “The ultimate goal is to save Article 26 of the German constitution by improving its corresponding law, the Kriegswaffenkontrollgesetz (the control of weapons of war law), [which] was originally designed to prevent Germany from producing and exporting weapons of war.”

“But current export practices basically approve each and every export application and because the committee that decides on those applications meets in secret, the public doesn’t get to know about it. 80 percent of Germany’s population is against weapons exports. We want to give those 80 percent a voice by bringing our law into parliament,” she continues.

Heckler & Koch weren’t the only arms manufacturers to be targeted. The third installment of the project awarded a fake peace prize to ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, a major manufacturer of naval surface vessels and submarines (Germany is the world’s largest exporter of submarines.)

Christian Stuve, Senior Vice President of Politics and Strategy at the company, showed up to a fake award ceremony that was held in a swanky hotel, catered with champagne, complete with a golden trophy, and filled with actors from the Theater Dortmund company, which collaborated with Peng on the entire campaign.

While the “French-German Peace Prize” orchestrated by Peng was satirical, ThyssenKrupp told the Tagesspeigel in earnest, “We would have gladly accepted a German-French peace prize, because we are supplying an important contribution to the safety and freedom of Europe with the building of marine ships.”

Good politics or bad business?

A study released in February by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute revealed that global arms trade had grown continuously since 2004, and that transfers of major weapons had reached their highest level since the end of the cold war.

Germany, one of the world’s top arms exporters, was the only country that reduced its volume of exports in the five-year period between 2012 and 2016. Dropping 35 percent compared to the previous five years, the country descended to the fifth largest arms exporter in the world, falling behind the United States, Russia, China, and France.

Stricter government policy may have contributed to the drop, the Local reported. In 2013, Germany pledged to reduce its arms exports; but other factors, like debt crises in the EU, played a part as well.

“It is hard to say whether the reduction of arms exports was due to good politics or bad business,” Gräber says. “But major parties have made promises to a population that is largely against weapons exports in general. We want to turn those promises into reality by strengthening the laws that regulate weapons exports.”

Supporters of tightening German gun laws can vote on a Peng-created website to decide which version of an amended Weapons of War Control Law the group will lobby to the Bundestag.

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