PR ON THE GO November 9, 2023

The Guillotine: An experiment by the artists Iman Rezai and Rouven Materne

VG Wort
Melanie Marten The Coup portrait

Author: Melanie Marten, The Coup

A public relations consultant with 15 years of experience under her belt, Melanie empowers purpose-driven people and brands to make their voices heard, for messages that aim to leave a legacy.

With The Coup, she created a large portfolio of global media coverage for startups, brands, global enterprises and their thought leaders.

In 2012, when I had just started my PR agency The Coup, we took a risk by launching a media stunt for an art project.

It catapulted our careers.

To this day, we haven't told the whole story.

In 2012, when I had just started my PR agency The Coup, we took a risk by launching a media stunt for an art project. The artists, then students at the prestigious Berlin University of the Arts (UdK), went viral around the world for building a full-size, fully functional guillotine and threatening the public to kill a sheep. We then spread the fake news of the sale of the guillotine for $1.2 million, which again went global. It catapulted our careers. To this day, we haven't told the whole story.

The sheep from the art project The Guillotine

The Guillotine: An experiment by the artists Iman Rezai and Rouven Materne

On April 19, 2012, we issued the following press release in German language to the German media:

The Guillotine: An experiment by the artists Iman Rezai and Rouven Materne

Rouven Materne and Iman Rezai, master students at the Berlin University of the Arts, built an instrument of execution and initiated a public vote on the killing of a sheep to represent the current state of democracy. The construction of the guillotine and the documentation that took place to publicize the vote on the life or death of the sheep met with resistance even in the planning stages at the university.

In the works of Iman Rezai, who grew up in Iran in the 1980s and 1990s, elements such as weapons and play stations are playfully depicted interacting with each other under bright colors. Rouven Materne uses raw materials such as nails, wood and metal in his artworks. Using lead and heat, he tells of pain in his objects and searches for truth by placing history in a contemporary context. Iman Rezai and Rouven Materne share a studio at the university of arts in Berlin (UdK).

"To determine the future, you have to connect the past with the present". - Iman Rezai and Rouven Materne talk about power and disempowerment, death, weapons, perpetrators and victims. They portray the fascination with weapons and instruments of killing in an unbiased way that remains as unexplained as a young boy's enjoyment of an imaginary gunfight in the guise of a cowboy.

"What you have to do is dictated to you by art, by your subconscious," says Rouven Materne. "I have a duty, it has to be done, there's no more why, wherefore," adds Iman Rezai. The artists' thoughts on the construction of the guillotine can be seen in the video documentary, which also shows the sheep whose death is to be decided by cutting off its head. Just as they see art as a reflection of their perception, they want to hold up a mirror to society and practice democracy in their experiment The Guillotine. The project to build a machine that could kill people was met with outrage at the Berlin University of the Arts during the planning stage, but attracted many onlookers at the first public performance after completion.

The guillotine is fully functional, a premise of the artists, and fully corresponds to the model of the execution machine developed during the French Revolution. It was built to abolish cruel and dishonorable forms of execution and to meet the demand of the revolution for equality. It has the standard dimensions of 3.20 m high (10.5 foot), 1.50 m wide (4.9 foot) and 1.50 m deep and carries a blade weighing about 40 kg (88 pounds) in its wooden construction. The only novelty is the bright colors with which it is painted. They are reminiscent of pop art and make a cheerful, playful impression. It seems less like an instrument of execution than a game of chance at a colorful fair, attracted by the macabre spectacle of the promise of death.

The vote to kill the sheep is taking place on the Internet and is open to everyone. On the website www. people have 28 days to vote yes or no to the question "Should this sheep be killed by the guillotine?"

The sheep from the art project The Guillotine

The Guillotine: An experiment by the artists Iman Rezai and Rouven Materne

How (the f***) did we get here?

The actual name of the project was "Die Guillotine". The German "Die" simply stands for the article "the", but it was kept in German in all translations, which made it seem even stronger, as it would literally translate to "die".

For the project we bought a sheep from a farm just outside of Berlin. It was a bargain. For only about 30 USD we got him. No questions asked. We named him Norbert.

Iman Rezai artwork You Are Green

You Are Green: An example of Iman Rezai's artwork at the time


Rouven Materne artwork Lounger

Lounger: An example of Rouven Materne's artwork at the time


Die Guillotine clean background

Die Guillotine

One of the many things we never told was that we returned Norbert right after the first photo and video shoot. We only had him for a few hours in the halls of the University of the Arts in Berlin, but we only gradually released pictures of him and presented them as new photographic evidence of life.

The full photo and film documentation of the project was done by Atila Madrona Chino, our inhouse creative at the time at The Coup.

The media coverage | Part I

For three consecutive days, there was ZERO response from the German press to which we distributed the press release.

We were in our twenties at the beginning of our careers, the two artists and me, the publicist. Are you an entrepreneur yourself and have you ever been in a situation where your family asked what the hell you were doing or planning to do for a living? Well, eventually I was able to answer that to my granny.

The angle from which the "promo" video was shot and the acceleration of the sound made it look like a serious and dangerous undertaking.

What the heck does someone in PR do?

After two days, I received phone calls from the artists. They had been contacted by other art students who had seen us covering the full-height walls of the Berlin University of the Arts with tarpaulins to make it look like a butcher's shop - all for the press photos. Now the students reported they saw the pictures on the front page of the 'Berliner Kurier' - an established German newspaper. My grandmother is a regular reader of the paper.

I was already busy with other projects, so I contacted my granny to pick up a few more issues of the paper on her daily breakfast walk to the bakery and newsstand. I told her the cover was what I did for a living.

She called me back and read me the story: "Perverse project at Berlin's famous University of the Arts: artists want to decapitate sheep."

Admittedly, it didn't help my family's confidence in my career choice.

Berliner Kurier about the art project The Guillotine

The front page of the Berliner Kurier on April 23, 2012

This cover created a rush of news about the project all over Germany. The second media outlet to report was German tabloid star BILD, and they pushed the story further against the artists, which further stirred up masses of comments and engagement on the website. The voters did their best to vote "NO" - meaning not to kill sheep Norbert. They quickly found out that the democratic vote lacked a framework - anyone could vote as many times as they wanted. And the clicks went up by the hundreds of thousands.

What the voters didn't know was that we were manipulating the voting on the website to show a race for YES votes.

We released a video documentary about the entire process of building Die Guillotine, and artist statements that actually mocked the undertaking, as Rezai and Materne smoked shisha while discussing the art. This pushed further engagement on YouTube.

While the artists were busy answering interview requests from VICE Germany and the like, we never told anyone what was happening behind the scenes.

The police came to their workshop at the university and confiscated the part of the guillotine that was the blade. We received eight charges for making a weapon, which is against the law, and for cruelty to animals. We never told about the charges and the confiscation because we led the media to believe that the sheep was actually under the control of the artists (it was back on the farm) and that the beheading would take place. The artists were expelled from the university. They received death threats from the audience.

We continued to play the game.

The media coverage | Part II

I wasn't doing global PR at the time. I was covering the German market in German language. My introduction to global media relations began when Reuters, a news agency that distributes news to mainstream media around the world, simply translated our press release and materials into English and hit "send." This was on April 24, 2012 - only 1 day after the front-page report that started the calls for interviews from all over Germany.

The Sun reports about The Guillotine

The Sun reported about Die Guillotine

The project took my full attention for the next four weeks, during which we generated over 400 press clippings.

With the Reuters distribution, the whole world reported on the project and stirred up more anger. "Sickening, I hope the German police put them in jail for this and that they also face PETA for this," said one YouTube commenter. Still, the media would take a turn in favor of the artists, who would end up being heroes of sorts for demonstrating democracy.

After two weeks, when the daily media frenzy began to die down, we issued a new statement - this time in German and English for worldwide distribution.

A video report about Die Guillotine from Japan

On May 8, 2012, we issued the following press statement:

THE GUILLOTINE - A statement by artists Iman Rezai and Rouven Materne in response to the high demand for the experiment.

"The Experiment Die Guillotine is a critical look at accepted political and moral systems that puts contemporary society and its political structures to the test. Divided into three parts, the guillotine, the sheep and the general public, the experiment allows people to decide for or against a life. Public forums allow for the exchange of opinions and reflection.

Because of the voting process, participants remain in the role of avoidable democrats, free to exercise their rights. Unlike other 'politically correct' polls, the public can vote in The Guillotine experiment as often as they wish, allowing them to directly influence the electoral process through their engagement. The artists take on the role of executioners, sacrificing their own desires and ethics for the good of the majority, thus becoming instruments of democracy.

Marked by disinformation, illusion and the belief that we live in an ideal political system, the "free" man quickly goes blind and thus runs in his own irresponsibility. Freedom, equality and human dignity are being trampled underfoot by the representatives of our societies under the guise of humanity and civilization. We are no longer aware of the consequences of our "democratic" decisions. In the name of democracy, peace and human rights, freedom is constantly being curtailed, war is being carried into the world, which only increases suffering. Avoidable information, a constructed image of the enemy and the belief that we are on the "right" side are used to calm our conscience and protect us from our own ugly faces. The direct vote, the presentation of the condemned subject and the self-promotion of the executioners ensure the indignation of the masses, because the familiar structures of the beloved democracy are broken down and compactly revealed in public".

The response

Conservative media got involved, interpreting the art project as a democratic test and celebrating the artists as critical thinkers. This led the public to see them as some kind of geniuses. Now they would quote Ben Franklin on the subject of The Guillotine: "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the decision." PETA got involved, using The Guillotine for a campaign suggesting they go vegan if they really cared about sheep Norbert.

There was only one journalist who pushed to see the sheep live (Christoph Titz, German media outlet Der Spiegel). The rest were fine with the pictures we sent, which we produced in the two hours we actually had the sheep. No one ever saw the actual artwork, the guillotine, live. But what really matters in the art world is an artist who sells. So we put out a final press release announcing the sale of the artwork.

With the success news of the sales, the university invited the artists back and asked them to give a speech to all the students - I'm not kidding, it actually happened.

The media coverage | Part III

"Oh, art. That magical, enigmatic practice that allows you to do anything you want in its name. You could shoot yourself, give birth to a child or lose your virginity for an audience, masturbate in a corner of a museum, or even inject yourself with horse plasma. Anything is fair game." - HuffPost, Lucas Kavner Die Guillotine: Berlin Artists Say They Will Kill A Live Lamb If The Internet Wants Them To (POLL)

In the (almost) final part of our 4-weeks odysee in media coverage around the globe, we announced the sales of the guillotine artwork to an anonymous seller from the U.S. We didn't even prepare a formal press release anymore. The run for the latest news on the project was hot, so we sent a few lines announcing just this. We set the fake sales at 1.2 Mio USD or something in this range - I cannot even recall the price tag we gave it. This was proper fake news. DO NOT REPEAT. We were young and dumb and got away with it.

Ah, here I found it in the HuffPost - $2.3 Million was the sum we announced and that was published all over the globe.

Now the artists were touring the press to talk about their "success" - which was uncomfortable for all of us. Not the part that the sale wasn't true. But the fact that they'd gone from hated sheep-killers to acclaimed geniuses.

To finalize the project, we invited all journalists to a press conference. I am not kidding you.

To complete the project, we invited all the journalists to a press conference. I am not kidding, we announced a press conference. I organized it at the nightclub I was doing PR for at the time, so it wasn't as formal as it sounds. The artists filled the rooms with prints of every hate comment and hate email they had received in the early days of the project, before the media reports turned them into big thinkers and then celebrated them as self-made artists. At the press conference, the artists revealed that they were never in possession of the sheep for the duration of the media coverage. They did not talk about the (fake) sale, but focused on how the media leads mass opinion.

The Guillotine final press conference

We held a final press conference for Die Guillotine

So, kids, this is what we did before NFTs and AI. We also invited journalists to a waterboarding session and hacked the National Gallery in Berlin - but those are stories for another time.


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