Creativity vs corruption: how to talk about important issues

Roland Spitzlinger and Julia Draxler quit moralizing about corruption. The weapons and tools they use are role plays and satire. They educate people about corruption through their seminars and tours, helping to see the real core of this phenomenon. Their next seminar will be held in Kyiv, on February 13-15, organized as part of a project “Innovative art measures against corruption” by the NGO Touchpoint, supported by EUACI, funded by the European Union and co-funded and implemented by the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA).

Corruption is human

Julia: I’m trying to digest the current situation in Austria. The situation is changing a lot now, it’s getting pretty intense. I have to find new ways to deal with it. We try to look at corruption with irony to be able to handle the situation where you actually stop laughing.

Corruption is a very social and human thing. You can’t do corruption on your own, you should have the least two people, but the more the merrier actually.

Corruption as a tradition is thousand years old. In that way, there must be something about it. Look at it this way: it’s a very tough world we are living in. Corruption is a good way to help your family, your friends, to stick together, to be secure, to make sure you have a happy and wealthy life.

If you’re a moral person you should give yourself an indulgence: you're doing what you’re doing because of your family, your friends. You can also say you’re doing it for your country if you’re more of a nationalist.

Corruption and Art

Julia: I come from the art sector. And it’s honestly one of the best sectors to be corrupt in. Money laundering with art is a very clean business, much better than drugs and weapons. It explains why a lot of wives of the oligarchs are in the art business.

Corruption is a very creative field. I used to work in the Stasi Museum in Leipzig, a museum dedicated to the methods of the former State Security Service of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

I used to work there, studying all the files, which was very interesting and very tricky. Secret service of GDR was my main focus. This really helped me to understand corruption better. They were very well trained in the 70s. They wanted to become officially recognized as a country, therefore they couldn’t do all the sinister stuff that everyone would notice, so they tried to focus on psychological ways to achieve their goals.

Every 5th person in GDR at least once in their life worked for the secret service. Corruption is not a one night stand, it’s a marriage. You really need to be close, to accept the other person, understand this person’s needs. The best corruption situation you can have is a win-win situation for both sides. That was the thing GDR focused on – if everyone is happy, then everything is fine. You really need to find out what you want yourself, and what the other person wants as well. But if something goes wrong, the other person gets cold feet, you need to have enough information to blackmail this person. Don’t think too much about the bad side of it, focus on how you can help each other, make each other happy.

Don’t underestimate the moral issues that you have

Roland: as Julia said you always need to have a win-win situation. You can start with small things – you have a job offer, and your friend needs a job, so you just tell him about your offer. It’s a very small innocent thing to do. Your friend will be happy. And next time when you need a job, your friend will think about you. Then you can go to the next level.  

In our seminars we don’t say corruption is bad, we put people in the front seat of it. How does it feel to be corrupt even if it’s only a small thing? Also, we teach participants exactly how to do it. For example, we teach how to set up a shell company (it’s neither hard nor expensive). We talk about little things that corrupt people need to know to be successful. Only when you know exactly how to do it, the moral issue comes into play. You know how to do it, and now you need to ask yourself, do you want to do it?

Julia: our aim is to have an honest discussion about corruption. There are a few sides of it that are really good. There is a reason, why so many people are doing it. You actually can’t discuss it seriously if you are not in the situation, and you don’t have the same temptations.

If someone else is benefiting, of course, you don’t like it. If you are the one who’s benefiting, then it’s a different thing.

Our seminars are role plays. They take you in, drag you in, you’re switching roles, you’re trying to understand. It’s like a theatre set in a way. You can pretend to be corrupt. It’s a funny game, and make you try to think corruptly with all the others. You dive into this topic deeper and deeper. And then you have to consider your temptations and really think about it. What would I do and why? The problem is not the corruption itself, it’s when you ask yourself, why do you want to do it.

In Austria, we have a long tradition of humor and cabaret that help people to deal with situations, including political situations. As everyone knows, we have a very bad history too.

You have to take the moral out of the issue

Roland: Let’s say you are responsible for a building contract. All the real estate people will knock at your door, and say ‘you know we would like to build this beautiful house’. They offer you to have some nice wine. Which is not corruption legally. Corruption only starts in Austria from a certain amount of money, let’s say, between 20 and 100 Euros. But that’s only the first step. The next time they invite you for a little SPA retreat, you don’t even know how much it is, but it is definitely more than 100 euros. And the next time they offer you a car, and then you say: oh no, I can’t take it. And they say, if you won’t take this car, we are going to publish what you already received from us before, and because of the strict laws for public officials you’re going to lose your job. So what are you going to do? Take the car?

What effect do the seminars have on students?

Roland: The ideal case – students really think about corruption, whether they would do it, or not, whether they think it’s bad or good (not what the media says, what they personally think).  

Julia: We give a lot of legal tips, and also teach how to keep your contacts, to introduce yourself, to do the networking.

We give a lot of information to remember and think of in a normal life. When at work you introduce yourself the way you learned it at the seminar, think about the seminar, and think “ok, how far would I go”. And that’s exactly what we want to achieve.

A lot of our students are young people who have many options in life. They are talented, ambitious. So we hope that after our seminars they will be aware that corruption doesn’t start with a suitcase with a million bucks, it starts with nice invitations and small things.

Roland: The first step for them is to think: what is happening to me, why am I tempted?

In the best case, in real life, when they are experiencing corruption, which they wouldn’t have recognize before, they would actually see it as it is, and make their own conscious choice.

We never say ‘don’t do it’, but we are trying to give people a choice, instead of them accidentally falling into it. So maybe next time when you’re given a bottle of wine, you will stop it before it’s too late.

Julia: On a personal level, a lot of people who are very corrupt, are actually very nice people. Admitting this helps me understand what they are doing when I put myself in their position. As I said, it’s a very human thing.

Roland: Aside from learning about themselves and their psychology, our students also learn a lot about corruption cases. We never judge those cases or mark them good or bad, we just use them as examples.

Normally, if the corruption case is in the media, it’s already a bad sign, it means someone made a mistake. We also teach people not to get into legal troubles. And if you are in legal trouble, we give you a lot of tips.

Corruption tours

Roland: We started in Vienna with city tours, where people could visit all the corrupt places. We’d stop in front of different ministries, headquarters of businesses, PR agencies etc. Our tours ‘teach’ how to be as successful as the people in those buildings. We always highlight positive things, we would never say they are bad. We did a crowdfunding campaign to start this project.

Corruption in other countries

Roland: as for countries that made big progress in getting rid of corruption and going transparent, I would name Georgia. In Georgia, the level of transparency is much higher than in Austria. It’s much easier to find out what the Georgian ambassador ate in a restaurant in Vienna, than of any of the Austrian politicians or governmental workers.

Julia: Our first seminar outside of the German-speaking community will be in Ukraine. But we’ll be happy to reach people all over the world. The ways corruption works are usually the same, but there is always some national specifics. And the humor can be different too. For example, in Switzerland, you wouldn’t be able to use the irony. Let’s see how it works in Ukraine. Hopefully, we and our students can learn from each other!


Roland Spitzlinger: studied innovation management and philosophy. He worked as a scientific researcher at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research and subsequently as a political advisor in the Austrian parliament, where he researched some of the largest corruption cases in Austrian history. During a one-year sabbatical he studied Industrial Design and now works as a User Interface Designer.

Julia Draxler: is an artist and historian, who mainly focused on the methods of the Ministry for State Security of the former German Democratic Republic. She works as an educator for art at the Museum of Modern Art, as an educator for human rights for the Amnesty International and as an educator for corruption at the Institute for Applied Corruption.


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