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The Insider

Jan Kage, BerlinFebruary 6, 2014

For Berlin Insider Jan Kage, art is a kind of religion. So he founded his own church, rooted in ancient traditions, to celebrate the spiritual power of art. But not every part of the mass appealed to the Berlin police.

Church of Phonk, Copyright: Övgü Özen
Image: Övgü Özen

"Is there somebody named Jan Kage in here," a middle-aged guy in a brown leather jacket asked, leaning into our backstage room.

We had just finished our first performance of the blessing of the Art Village, which is an art space I curate every year at the Berlin Festival for music. Of course every village has a church. So after the blessing we had a ceremony in the holy Church of Phonk. It's the church of joy I've founded for agnostics and atheists. Of course I got to be the high priest of it all, since it was my idea, but with me were about a dozen artists and helpers, each wearing robes and relics.

"It's the Berlin police. Can we have a word, please?"

I stepped outside and the over-joyous feelings I had after our first uplifting mass were replaced with the question of what problems the police might have with my church.

Jan Kage, Copyright: Stefan Ruhmke
'The Insider' Jan Kage is a regular contributor to Scene in BerlinImage: Stefan Ruhmke

Religion is no criminal offense in Germany, as far as I know. Sure, religious people have a lot of feelings these days and are easily hurt, but we have the freedom of religion as a constitutional right - and that includes the freedom from religion. I happen to have my own church, now, so I have feelings, too!

Celebrating spirituality without gods

A local tabloid had run a story in the morning asking, "May he bless with a golden toilet brush?" showing a photo of me blessing Conny Opper, the head of the Berlin Festival. The journalist even called the Protestant and Catholic bishops in town to get their opinion. Apparently, they just smiled.

"We just witnessed this performance over there," the older of the two cops said, gesturing over to where our beautiful church stood. It was a flashy, colorful installation that measured 12 meters long, seven meters high and six meters wide. A group of 10 artists had worked on the sculpture meant to celebrate spirituality and transcendence without worshipping any gods we don't believe in.

That is the serious motivation behind the project: When we stop believing in gods, art become the last remaining field of spirituality and transcendence.

"What was that you guys had behind your ears?" the older officer asked. The younger one kept quiet pretty much all the time. To remain undercover, both of them were wearing the masks our sponsor had passed out - pieces of cardboard which you could paint and then pull over your face.

Jan Kage as high priest at the Church of Phonk in Berlin, Copyright: Övgü Özen
Note the props tucked behind Jan's earsImage: Övgü Özen

"Oh, you mean the joints?" I said frankly. "Ah, don't you worry," I waved him off with a smile. "They were pure dummies. Just tobacco in 'em," I laughed.

But the cop was not laughing. "Show them to us!"

I opened the door to let the two officers in their undercover attire back into our dressing room. When we came in, all of my artist friends stopped their conversations immediately. Nobody knew what was happening.

Props like Bob Marley's

I handed the cops the tobacco joints we had prepared for the mass. They sniffed them, mumbling, "Tobacco."

"It's just theater," I explained. "They're props."

The older cop had just finished sniffing on his third joint which he also passed on to his subordinate, who gave it the same kind of thorough treatment he had used on the first two. All my altar boys and girls watched in a mixture of disbelief, amusement and caution concerning the outcome of this investigation.

"Why did you need marijuana joints as props?"

"Short form? It's about spirituality. Every religion has that. The Jews and the Christians use wine. We bless the church-goers with schnapps instead. And marijuana is a spiritual drug, too. You don't want to see Bob Marley performing without weed, do ya?!" I said, figuring even the police would like Bob, even though he did shoot the sheriff.

Saint Gentrifizian at the Church of Phonk in Berlin, Copyright: Övgü Özen
Saint Gentrifizian was one of a few mock holy figuresImage: Övgü Özen

The older cop had this big question mark hanging over his head, and I had the feeling that it had nothing to do with the fact that Bob Marley is not alive anymore.

"See, when the first sister drew a bull on some cave wall down in southern Africa some 70,000 years ago, she had to name it to explain to her brother what it was: 'Bull.' Both the drawing and the naming were rooted in the same moment, as French sociologists pointed out in the 1960s. I bet that in the exact same moment another brother or sister beat some bones together, rhythmically humming while dancing around a fire. These are exactly the elements that make up us all: music, art and poetry.

"That gives a higher meaning to life when the sun sets, when it gets dark, and there's no science that can assure you it will rise again the next morning. Which is why these brothers and sisters made the sun their first god, you know."

The cop looked bewildered. I continued.

In touch with the ancient past

"After that came the gods of wind and other natural phenomenon, and personalized gods came much later. So priests became the successors of the nomadic shamans, which had been the ones to call up the spirits and gods in ancient times. And for their rites, the new priests used alcohol instead of the shamans' nature drugs like weed and mushrooms, you see."

The cop showed no emotion. Various and Gould had big smiles on their faces, though. They had helped me as altar boy and girl during the ceremony and painted my church windows with their modern day saints: Saint Gentrifizian for the urban, Santa Diversita for the transgender, St. Redundous for the old and poor, and Santa Pharma for everlasting life through pharmaceutical drugs.

Participants at the Church of Phonk, Copyright: Övgü Özen
Jan guarantees dancingImage: Övgü Özen

"After Nietzsche declared that god is dead, none of us kept believing in gods, but we are still human, aren't we? That means we are still spiritual beings and are able to transcend our own limited physical existence. That's is why my artist friends and I built the holy Church of Phonk. As symbols for spirituality, we had the flask of schnapps and the joints.

"The best thing about it is that we promise that everybody who enters the church leaves a better dancer, no matter how good he was before. And that is for you, too, brother!"

The others tried not to laugh. The officer mumbled something I could not make out as he headed for the door, followed by his young colleague.

I don't know whether he's a better dancer now, but I sure hope so. May the phonk be with him!