Photos by Michael Marcelle
In September 2008, Danish artist Thomas Altheimer received a call from his eight-year-old daughter. She wanted to know why posters of his face were plastered all over Copenhagen. Altheimer was living in the Vienna suburbs at the time and didn't have an answer for her. Only when he called a pal in Denmark did he learn the posters were promoting a book released by Denmark's largest publisher, Gyldendal. The novel, titled Suverænen, or The Sovereign, was written by Altheimer's former artistic partner, Claus Beck-Nielsen, who was now going by the name Das Beckwerk.
Five days later, Altheimer found himself holding a copy of the book, peering down at his own face on the slick dust jacket. Although the The Sovereign—a roman à clef concerning a performance-art project on which the pair collaborated in 2004—presents Altheimer as a fictional character, he is referred to by his full legal name. The text includes his actual home address, the names of his children, and passages from his blog and private letters. The epilogue examines his tiny home village of Horne, where Beck-Nielsen had gone door to door, baffling Altheimer's childhood neighbors with questions about his adolescence.
Altheimer read the novel in one sitting and decided to sue.
"It was the most surreal experience," he later told me. "We all go around with our own story, and suddenly somebody knew how to narrate the story that's in my head."
Thomas Altheimer stands 6'4" and carries himself with a vague air of lost European nobility. From certain angles, he resembles a mid-career Julian Sands. He holds a bachelor and master of arts in comparative literature, another bachelor's degree in political science, a master of research in cultural studies, and a PhD in art practice. When he is in a good mood—and not overcome by one of his periodic waves of melancholy—he seems like the kind of man who would have diplomatic immunity.
Altheimer first encountered his future artistic partner in 1999, as a voice on a Danish radio station. Claus Beck-Nielsen was being interviewed about his first book, Horne Land. As a child, Beck-Nielsen had summered in Altheimer's home village, and he'd decided to write about the place through a filter of fond memories. The story produced a jealous disorientation in Altheimer, as if someone had decided to copyright his childhood. It was an odd provocation from a stranger.
Three years later, the course of Altheimer's life took a radical turn. He had grown disenchanted with his bureaucratic job in Denmark's immigration ministry, and in 2000 he created Ticket to Denmark, a website inviting foreigners to meet and marry Danes for citizenship. The project was short-lived. Not long after it launched, Ticket to Denmark was reported to the authorities and Altheimer was fired from his job. But the event served as a sort of wake-up call, bringing Altheimer to the realization that he'd made a sharp departure in his life, veering from a normal trajectory of education and employment to something dramatic and uncharted.
Around this time, Altheimer learned that Beck-Nielsen, who was somewhat established in the Denmark art scene, had been granted use of a Copenhagen theater, and he wrote the artist a letter referencing his own stunt and requesting an internship.
"I did this because I wanted to open up everything. And it did. And in that situation, I sought out that person," he said, referring to Beck-Nielsen.
Altheimer's letter stood out, partly because of his unusual academic background and partly because he struck Beck-Nielsen as "mad." The two spoke by phone, and soon Altheimer was Beck-Nielsen's assistant, a like-minded compatriot in a small art scene in a small European city.
Both men had a fondness for trying on new names and personae. Born Thomas Skade-Rasmussen Strøbech, Altheimer (his "artist name") has used a variety of surnames, including Cohen, Rasmussen, van Brunt, and van Woestenburg. Claus Beck-Nielsen has called himself Helge Bille Nielsen (after the deceased former tenant of his apartment) and Das Beckwerk (after his theater in Copenhagen, which, in turn, he'd named after himself). They'd started as simply Rasmussen and Beck-Nielsen, which Altheimer likened to the British art team Gilbert & George. At least in Altheimer's mind, they were a "duo."
Beck-Nielsen viewed the relationship differently. When I asked by email whether he would call their collaboration a friendship, he replied with an unequivocal "No. Right from the very first day we met, we were, and have always been, on formal terms with each other."
He added, "I certainly do not actively dislike either Thomas Skade-Rasmussen Strøbech, Thomas Altheimer, Rasmussen, or any other of his chosen few. On the contrary: I love him, in a platonic way, indeed, and a very, very complicated way, most certainly, a very special but maybe lifelonglasting compassion [sic]." In a different email, he referred to Altheimer as his best "fiend."
After deciding to sue, it took several months for Altheimer to raise enough cash for a lawyer. He finally filed his suit in early 2009, accusing Beck-Nielsen of libel, breach of privacy, and commercial use of intellectual property. Over the course of the next two years, he went through four lawyers. The first "turned out to be a crook," the second got cold feet, and the third refused to be filmed.
This last point was crucial, because Altheimer voraciously filmed anything and everything—conversations, correspondences, meetings, attempted confrontations—that might link back to the convoluted strings of his and Beck-Nielsen's former relationship. Danish director Max Kestner shaped the footage into the 2012 documentary I Am Fiction. The resulting film is often quite painful to watch—an intimate portrait of a man haunted by the betrayal of a close friend. At certain points, he refers to Beck-Nielsen as a "body snatcher" and "vampire," and at others he longs for contact with his old comrade. The frank depiction of emotional conflict, coupled with the men's history together, led some to question the veracity of the case, and to wonder whether or not the whole thing—The Sovereign included—was an elaborate bit of performance art.
Altheimer bristled at not having final say on the edits, although this lack of control seems in keeping with the larger story. Director and subject struggled to find a distributor for the film. It was shown once at a film festival in Malmö, Sweden, to an unresponsive audience. A year later, according to Altheimer, the documentary aired on Danish TV to a meager 26,000 viewers.
Altheimer had begun working as Beck-Nielsen's assistant during the buildup to and beginning of the war in Iraq. In Copenhagen's tiny art scene, the war posed a near-existential crisis. The theater responded to world events by converting a 40-foot freight container in the center of the city into a space for meetings and performances. They dubbed the box Democracy and tried to ship it to Iraq just after the invasion. But empty containers can't be shipped, so there it sat. Conversations about attempting a more dramatic statement on the war provoked infighting among the theater community. Finding their artistic vision at odds with that of the rest of the group, Altheimer and Beck-Nielsen decided to strike out on their own.
The two men arrived in Kuwait in late 2003. Their new plan was to hand-deliver a smaller, luggage-size version of Democracy to Iraq. Getting into the country at that time required permits, so they decided to wear business suits and present themselves as "the official ambassadors of Western civilization."
When they arrived at Kuwait City's Multi-National Command headquarters in their suits, the British commanders didn't know what to do with them. Being honest about their artistic intentions didn't help matters, since the only categories for entrants to Iraq were journalists, merchants, and soldiers. Finally one of the colonels—a former theater student from Oxford, it turned out—overheard their predicament and announced, "You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern." He made both of them sign a copy of Hamlet, then ordered a Kuwaiti general to grant them permits. The general bellowed, "Throw them to the lions!"
They caught a cab to the Iraqi border on New Year's Day and crossed into Iraq on foot, jetlagged and woozy. The desolation of the nowhere zone reminded Altheimer of Escape from New York. The pair were in way over their heads. A prearranged contact picked them up and chauffeured them to a hotel in Basra.
When they arrived the men debated whether the ambassadors of democracy should be armed. In Basra and Baghdad, they staged several theatrical attempts to obtain guns from Coalition Provisional Authority consulates. In one such instance, Altheimer stuck a note that read "We would like guns" through the front gates. The men slept in cheap hotels and private houses and refugee gatherings, while a cacophony of donkeys, explosions, gunfire, helicopters, and muezzins blared outside.
They left the box at a Baghdad art academy sponsored by the French embassy and vowed to return. Several months later, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs awarded Altheimer a generous grant to go back to Iraq, but by that time the insurgents had started beheading foreigners, and the offer was placed on hold until October, when both men were able to return for a brief trip to retrieve Democracy before making a quick exit. The box continued on to Washington, DC, for "repairs," and, in 2006, to Iran, where a far less eventful tour ended with both men leaving the box in the hills overlooking Tehran.
Beck-Nielsen's 2005 novel, The Suicide Mission, used their Iraq trip as its source material. In the book, Altheimer appears as the character "Rasmussen." At the time, Altheimer viewed that as an acceptable remove from his true persona. I asked Beck-Nielsen about the book, and he replied:
"The Suicide Mission is—or has become—the authorized version of the story (or this piece of history), which has of course upset my Rasmussen, who immediately felt that I had stolen and alone profited from our common adventure… Already in The Suicide Mission he was robbed of his story—the peak of his small life on Earth—and turned into a fiction called 'Rasmussen.' And then, with The Sovereign, he was finally ripped off it all: His name, his picture, his story, his life, his identity [sic]."
In America an identity seizure like the one Altheimer suffered would almost certainly be seen as a serious civil or criminal breach, but in Scandinavia Beck-Nielsen's approach to writing The Suicide Mission was largely considered his prerogative as an author. There is far more gray area in Scandinavia when it comes to such matters. Despite the nation's active hate-speech law, the World Press Freedom Index ranks Denmark as the seventh-freest country for speech. Altheimer cited this cultural mentality as the main reason for the blasé reactions to his case. In his opinion, the difference between the legal systems of Scandinavia and the rest of the Western world is vast, a gap in which individuals in the former are liable to fall.
Politiken, a leading Danish newspaper, praised Beck-Nielsen as a guardian of the "sanctuary" of fiction. Popular Danish critic and novelist Carsten Jensen (a Gyldendal-published author) dismissed Altheimer as "Nielsen's hand puppet." Altheimer didn't read any press in his favor. In the eye of the public and the Danish literary establishment, Altheimer was the villain of the story and a whining nark.
"I was just one guy against the biggest publishing house. They control everything in Denmark, that publishing house. And everyone sided with them! I don't know why I am the one nobody trusts. That's the thing that gets to me."
In 2007, Beck-Nielsen wrote and staged a play called The Return of the Democracy, based on their 2003 Iraq trip. Altheimer caught a performance at the Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center and found the actor playing Rasmussen to be a convincing mimic of his actual mental state in Iraq. Desperate to follow any leads that might help him put together the increasingly jumbled puzzle pieces of his life, Altheimer tracked down the actor who'd played Beck-Nielsen and approached him outside a Copenhagen bar. During the short exchange, captured in—or possibly staged for—I Am Fiction, Altheimer tells him that he has trouble distinguishing the character from the actor, and that he felt provoked just from watching someone play Beck-Nielsen onstage. The actor, Thomas Mork, nods and tells him that it's important to be able to separate the two, then quickly slips back inside. The meeting appears to have left Altheimer more depressed than he was before.
Much to Altheimer's chagrin, the buildup to the trial paralleled his rival's ascent through the Danish art scene. In November 2010, four months before the ruling, the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts sponsored a reception in celebration of Beck-Nielsen's writing and performance art. Altheimer decided to crash it. He'd been drinking vodka heavily and, by the time he arrived, had forgotten what he'd wanted to say. Standing, he announced to the audience, "The Sovereign is a crappy book," and launched into a rambling attack on Beck-Nielsen's hometown before losing his train of thought. The crowd smiled in polite silence. No one seemed to know what to make of the botched confrontation, especially Beck-Nielsen, who was sitting quietly in the front row.
In January, Altheimer flew to Oslo to meet with the Norwegian publisher of The Democracy – Destination: Iraq, a collection of writings, by "Rasmussen and Nielsen," that he was surprised to discover he'd coauthored without his knowledge. The publisher received him politely but offered no apologies for marketing his work without consent or compensation. Several Norwegian lawyers told him he didn't have a case (Norway ranks third on the World Press Freedom Index).
The following month, Altheimer tried to go on the offensive. Armed with a doctored copy of the dust jacket, he flew to New York with the aim of passing The Sovereign off as his own novel, thus achieving revenge while reducing Beck-Nielsen to the fictional character. He spoke with three publishers, all of whom rebuffed him, some with undisguised contempt. He wound up with just enough cash to get himself back to the airport. Speaking with a friend on his return to Europe, he referred to himself as "a jilted artist."
The role of Frustrated Performer was one that Altheimer had grown accustomed to. In 2005, he'd attempted to escape Beck-Nielsen's shadow with a bold performance-art piece in the Caribbean. During the 1989 American siege in Panama City, the US military blasted Guns N' Roses through huge speakers pointed at the Holy See Apostolic Nuncio, where Manuel Noriega was holed up, in an effort to persuade him to surrender. Altheimer decided he would turn the tables on America by playing classical music at high volumes outside the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay. His vision called for a cruise ship to sail from Miami. He'd be surrounded by intellectuals, displaying their righteous anger with stylish sarcasm and loud music. It would be like Billionaires for Bush, but on the sea, and more fun.
He ended up renting a small boat in Jamaica, after a hurricane. Early in the trip, the boat lost one motor in bad weather. The day-long journey took three, and after the food ran out, he drank white rum. When they arrived at Guantánamo, Altheimer drunkenly held up a boombox he'd bought in Kingston, Jamaica. Waves drowned out the roar of Beethoven's Third Symphony.
In 2008, he spearheaded Europe for President, a mock political campaign intended to antagonize Obama supporters (one anti-Obama harangue got him ejected from the Democratic National Convention). Although he'd learned from past actions to thoroughly document everything he did, Europe for President shared a common thread with the Guantánamo debacle in its lack of press. On a Swedish TV program covering both of Altheimer's solo endeavors, he compared himself to Don Quixote.
Altheimer was in Vienna, wrapping up an exhausting editing session on the Europe for President, documentary when he got the call from his daughter about The Sovereign.
The trial got under way in early 2011, at the High Court of Denmark. The courtroom footage from I Am Fiction presents an oddly cerebral proceeding. Beck-Nielsen gives an artistic defense, framing his appropriations in a larger examination of the nature of reality. When asked why he hadn't called Altheimer "Rasmussen," as he had named him in The Suicide Mission, Beck-Nielsen replied, "The point I wanted to make was that this could be a real person." For a viewer not steeped in the Copenhagen art community, this defense seems laughably esoteric. Altheimer felt assured of victory.
When Denmark ruled in Beck-Nielsen's favor, two months later, Altheimer sat in a shocked stupor. The possibility of losing had never crossed his mind. The state announced that it would, in accordance with Danish law, compensate Gyldendal Publishing $11,000 and Beck-Nielsen about $14,000. Outside the courtroom, the two men shook hands, and Altheimer bitterly congratulated the defendant on his windfall. After the ruling, two leading Danish newspapers, Dagbladet Information and Jyllands-Posten (the latter of which gained international attention for its liberal stance on freedom of speech in 2005 after publishing a number of controversial cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad), praised the ruling as a victory for the freedom of expression.
Danske Bank sued Altheimer. He'd amassed tens of thousands of dollars in debt from the case, and from the Guantánamo footage editing sessions, during which much of his rented equipment had been stolen from an uninsured London gallery. In the March 2012 deposition hearing, he brought piles of transcripts, articles, and Beck-Nielsen's novel. He told the judge, "The copyright to Thomas Skade-Rasmussen Strøbech belongs to Gyldendal and Helge Bille Nielsen. This is not just my absurd claim but a legal reality established by the High Court last year. Therefore I cannot answer for Thomas Skade-Rasmussen Strøbech's actions." He concluded with a quote from Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener," which impressed nobody.
One month later, he received the ruling by phone, while sitting on a tombstone in a graveyard behind the prison where his grandfather had languished during World War II. He was already deep in debt for child support, back taxes, and student loans when the friendly clerk informed him that he had two weeks to pay about $35,000, including nearly $6,000 for additional court costs.
Altheimer's first words in I Am Fiction are "I hate Claus Beck-Nielsen," and yet the film ends with a reconciliation. On a rainy afternoon one week after the court ruling, Beck-Nielsen arrives, sopping wet, at Altheimer's doorstep. The two men share a pot of tea, sitting side by side on Altheimer's sofa, chatting and laughing. The scene leaves an odd aftertaste.
I asked Altheimer this ending made it easier for his critics to doubt his own authenticity and believe the whole thing is a hoax. He told me, "There's only one person on this planet who knows what I've done, what we've done. So he will always be a factor in my life." When pressed on whether or not that moment was documented as a wink to his audience, he seemed to agree.
"It's also taking it out of the victim narrative. For me, that wink also signals that I might have been in control."
We discussed the word victim.
"I was a victim, but I was also playing a victim in the film, and between those two, I sometimes found it hard to distinguish. It's a role I do very well. It's like the only role I'm good at playing."
He had pursued the court case on dual tracks, as litigation and artistic spectacle, and gotten burned on both approaches. He'd lost by law and in public esteem, and even those siding with him weren't fully assured the whole thing hadn't been a stunt. In the wake of complete failure, why not be friendly with his own best "fiend"?
Beck-Nielsen's take on this reconciliation was more florid, and conflicted.
"I wasn't involved in the making of this film, and I didn't see it until the premiere in the cinema," he told me. "And on this opening night I left the cinema quite touched and very dizzy, with the feeling of having seen a love story. I am obviously portrayed as the antagonist, the evil, the enemy, in the movie… I left the cinema and wandered for hours in the cold and clear late autumn night of Copenhagen, feeling very sad and sentimental and touched: I had seen myself in a love story, and although I knew it was a piece of formalized reality, I felt that the story was true. The true story of Nielsen and Altheimer."
In I Am Fiction, the anonymous narrator recalls part of a letter Beck-Nielsen sent to Altheimer following the exchange: "You were the victim, the human who was robbed of his story. Who must fight to recapture it."
It would have been interesting to see how this reconciliation might have played out a year later, in 2012, after the publication of Beck-Nielsen's Store Satans Fald (Fall of the Great Satan). This final(?) installment of Beck-Nielsen's fictional re-creation of Thomas Altheimer examines the two men's 2006 trip to Tehran to (artistically) foment democracy. At some point, the narrative switches to alternate history. The men are captured, convicted, and sentenced to death by starvation in the remote mountains. Banished, "Rasmussen" succumbs to hypothermia, and Beck-Nielsen cuts up the body for food. The cannibalism scene lasts ten pages and is stunning in its research, if not its audacity. (Who knew, for example, that the human liver crunches when bit?)
Discussing the cannibalism scene with Altheimer, I asked whether he'd ever considered turning the tables on Beck-Nielsen and writing his own account of their association.
"I'm not a very good writer," he said. "It wouldn't be particularly funny." Besides, he pointed out, who would buy it? Beck-Nielsen himself had already saturated the Beck-Nielsen market.
"I am, in a sense, radically free," Altheimer said. While teasing out the inevitable implications of losing one's primary identity, he announced his latest incarnation: Tom Dane, failed comedian. This identity had the advantage of being pre-tested. Popular Danish entertainer Thomas Eje had attempted to export his "Tom Dane" show to Vegas a decade earlier, but had seemingly returned to Denmark after he was unable to craft a successful act in the States. Thomas considered the stage persona "alive but without a host."
"I just want to do fun stuff from now on. I can't do the self-important pompous thing anymore, which is what I probably am. But this is why I have to work against that. And so, trying to be a failed comedian… at least I might be able to do that."