When Baader Met Meinhof

Being true romantics, they let their actions do their talking


At age 13, performance artist Erin Cosgrove had her cool-radar tripped by a photo of Joe Strummer wearing a T-shirt printed with a Kalashnikov and the letters RAF. She subsequently learned—”because these things happen later in Minnesota, you know”—that it stood for the Red Army Faction, a band of Communist revolutionaries who blasted their way across West Germany as the idealistic ’60s staggered into the benighted ’70s.

Led by Andreas Baader, handsome, charismatic denizen of the Berlin demimonde, and his fiery girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin, the RAF captivated German youth, who saw the coed guerrillas as both political and fashion icons. When Baader landed in jail, radical journalist Ulrike Meinhof helped bust him out, causing conservative newspapers to anoint them the Baader-Meinhof Gang, a Teutonic Bonnie and Clyde (though in actuality the priapic Baader could barely stand the brainy Meinhof). Dedicated to overthrowing the “fascist state . . . the generation that built Auschwitz,” the RAF gave no quarter: kidnappings, bombings, and shoot-outs left a trail of corpses, culminating in the prison suicides—or state-sanctioned murders?—of the RAF leadership, on October 18, 1977. That date provides the title for painter Gerhard Richter’s elegiac cycle on the murky affair Germans call Death Night; shown at MOMA last year, the paintings inspired Don DeLillo’s creepy short story, “Baader-Meinhof,” which closes with a glimpse of Funeral, the final painting in Richter’s sequence. Both works mourn something audacious and vibrant that met a squalid end.

If all this seems too unrelentingly grim, too sorrowful, too — let’s face it — German, don’t despair, ’cause girlfriend, Erin Cosgrove never forgot the misshapen love triangle she discovered underneath the Clash’s couture statement. Having studied with conceptual guru John Baldessari, she produced such work as “The Big Dick Contest,” in which she placed a personal ad in a Berlin newspaper inquiring “why the men in Germany all act like big dicks, but fall anatomically short,” then exhibited the scores of photographs and letters she received in response. Cosgrove has now embarked on her most audacious piece, “Seven Romance Novels.” “Erin Cosgrove,” her bluntly named alter ego, is the author of The Baader-Meinhof Affair (Printed Matter, 245 pp., $14.95), the first to be published. She is not a “writer” but a “romance provocateur,” the novel is not a “book” but a “romance manifesto,” and you are not a “reader” but one of the “uninitiated participating in extended aesthetic anti-agitprop enhancement.” And if this is all sounding perilously German again, take heart — the whole thing is a “satire,” albeit a complex, sometimes morbid one. Mock-ups of all seven “novels” are featured in the “Pulp Art” show at the Brooklyn Museum, through August 31. Cosgrove and cover-god Fabio are fetchingly Photoshopped for such titles as Sycophant Love and The Two-Timing Two-Stepper, contemporary riffs on the original Depression-era magazine artwork in the exhibit. Fabio, that broad slab of sensitivity, donated his services for all the Romance Novels, a canny career move exposing him to a downtown demographic no doubt previously immune to his charms. (The Baader-Meinhof cover also boasts faux wrinkles and dog-ears, as if it’s been carried around in a freshman backpack for half a semester; footnote dingbats consist of hammers and sickles, and portraits of Lenin and Che.)

For a recent reading at the museum, “Cosgrove” wore padded leather pants, a pocketed flak vest, and the withering, impatient sneer of a true believer. Using charts and slashing hand gestures, she set out to re-educate the masses. (In an interview, it was revealed that the “author” wanted to bring along a fake Glock, but Cosgrove, who now lives in L.A., thought better of it, what with airport security and all.) Fabio was described as “one of our greatest freedom fighters,” and quoted thusly: “There is no timetable for the fantasies that can come true.”

So maybe it’s not completely clear what that means, but as the “author” points out in her manifesto’s forward, “The label ‘maudlin’ or ‘bad writing’ no longer has the negative connotation it once did.” This conveniently inoculates Cosgrove against criticism of wallowing in the genre’s typically clubfooted prose: “Meinhof had always known that grenades were approximately the same size as a human heart. But, for the first time, she realized that a heart could cause as much destruction.” Such sentiment is blithely skewered by footnoted digressions on class warfare and portentous pearls from the “author” such as “love, power, and death . . . are the three mediums terrorists work in.”

Cosgrove’s soap opera characters are trapped in the art house: Mara, the petite, curvy heroine, is the new girl at an exclusive New England college, where she’s immersed in serial killer studies. Enter Regan, the tall, passionate co-leader of the campus Baader-Meinhof reading group. She seems like Mara’s friend, but is it all an act? (Hint: Her name is pronounced like the “former puppet president.”)

And then there’s Holden, the “rich” (naturally), “handsome” (of course), “tall” (check), “sexy” (bingo) leading man. A former flame of Regan’s, he now consorts with her only to honor their joint respect for all things Baader and Meinhof. Finally, what diabolical game are Mara’s dorm “friends,” Penny and Tippy, playing? As Penny says of her surgically enhanced bosom, “If these are fake, then everything is fake. And then what do we have to live for?”

The real Cosgrove was born in ’69, an auspicious year for a love commando, but also a time when the idealism of protest seemed concrete. Now, with the harsh boot of fascism replaced by the velvet fist of the G-8, her characters seem like stand-ins for those whose days of dissent are behind them. When Mara muses, “From RAF to NPR, maybe that’s what it means to grow up,” the satire is biting, and it’s not a love bite. Yet Cosgrove remains ever the romantic, painting a charming, autumn-dappled campus, where students overcome their apathy through “Capitalism Must Fund Its Own Demise! Day”: Kids dash about the streets slapping cardboard cutouts of explosions onto the Gap’s windows and then hand out literature so the locals will understand “why the targets were chosen and what steps they should take in the future in order to throw off their chains.”

Perhaps for you, gentle reader, this primer on urban guerrillas exposing the fascist face of capitalism is all just revolutionary name-checking  —Carlos the Jackal, Marx, Mumia, Mulder and Scully — adding frisson to a night spent curled up with a pint of Haagen-Dazs and your favorite cat. It’s the kind of book you’ll want to read while moving your lips. But maybe, in this Age of Ashcroft, it’s un-American to make fun of terrorism. Yet if we can’t have some laughs, or at least get laid — oops, that should be ride the frothy stallion of ecstasy — then surely, the terrorists have won. And, being true romantics, they let their actions do their talking. Allow Andreas Baader, he of the outlaw looks and skintight trousers, the last word. While training at a Palestinian guerrilla camp, the RAF women outraged their Muslim hosts with nude sunbathing. When confronted, Baader chivalrously cut to the quick: “The anti-imperialist struggle and sexual emancipation go hand in hand — fucking and shooting are the same thing!”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 10, 2003