Pharmakos. Adornment as a social tool

Vivi Toumoumidi

In her PhD research and accompanying publication Pharmakos, Vivi Touloumidi investigates adornment as an active agent to address social discomfort, repression, and marginalization in the public realm. Confrontation through wearability is achieved via the gesture of decoration. Her project appropriates and subverts signs of stigmatization employed during WWII, and through in-depth research it proposes new statement pieces that speak of resilience, emancipation, and self-determination of the social body. The debate remains unsettled.

In haar doctoraatsonderzoek en bijbehorende publicatie Pharmakos onderzoekt Vivi Touloumidi verfraaiing als actieve methode om sociale ontwrichting, onderdrukking en marginalisering in de publieke ruimte aan te kaarten. Confrontatie door draagbaarheid wordt bereikt via het gebaar van versiering. In haar project worden tekens van stigmatisering tijdens WOII toegeëigend en ondermijnd. Door diepgaand onderzoek trachten deze tekens nieuwe betuigingen van doorzetting, emancipatie, en zelfbeschikking van de sociale eenheid te worden. Het debat blijft onbeslist.

What if it was forced?

This is how it started. What then?

My relocation to Berlin in 2013, as a newcomer with bad timing, while the Greek financial crisis was escalating, gave me lots of empty space for contemplation and lots of new reasons to experience exclusion. It was a time of personal restrictions that confirmed and enabled a deeper awareness of my social (id)entity. The need to understand my practice and medium therefore became urgent. Why were they relevant in the first place? Why keep making jewellery?

About two blocks away from my new apartment, a well-preserved WWII forced-labour camp was located. There, I encountered for the first time these badges used to systematize the bodies of the workers. P was for the Polish, OST stood for Soviet Union. An ontological question started pending. Is this jewellery?

© Vivi Touloumidi
vom Abzeichen zum Auszeichnen, 2020-2022
badges in anodized & coated aluminum, st.steel
10 x 8 x 12 cm

They had all the conventional features we identify as adornments. All normative formats were applied for such a typology of wearable items: small in scale, relational to the body, attached on the torso, public and visible to others, portable, and mobile. The ones on display at the Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Centre Berlin-Schöneweide were not proud possessions, though. These were worn in the absence of free will. Identical for all. In repetition, as no variations were possible. Dictated and forced.

This encounter sparked my curiosity to think about adornment in reverse. And to investigate further how these items were conceived and conceptualized by the regime. Since it is a customary notion to perceive adornment as an added value on the surface of the body, it was worth wondering instead: What if it was created with the goal to devalue the body, rather than to enhance it? How would it look like then? And what if it aimed at degrading the identity for the likes of the spectator? How would this friction then materialize?

By looking at moments of tension or crisis, much can be revealed about our behaviours and what matters to us or even who we would really become, only if we were allowed to.

My archival research at the Bundesarchiv in Berlin proved unexpectedly fruitful and I arrived at some answers. Apart from the original state announcements regarding P (1940) and OST (1942), the files revealed long and extensive administration letters discussing the redesign of the latter and the need to do so. The discussions of the officers lasted for months. Arguing back and forth about the sign’s design, wearability, and social meaning.

And then, there were the other ones, conceived as early as 1938 and used for the first time at the Dachau concentration camp. From there on, the rest of the extermination centres applied the same signs by its example. These triangles followed explicit colour coding and a whole system of rules, where new badges could be assembled, according to each prisoner’s intersectionality. Information is yet to be revealed about who conceptualized these tables. Their colour-mapping indexed identity rankings to human bodies, while their specificity made the orientation of the dominant power convenient and efficient.

Even so, the content, the social labelling in itself, was not a Nazi invention initially. These were already existing social constructs accepted outside of the gates of the camps. Within the camps, these labels weren’t new:

Although it was forced on the prisoners by the SS, the category system was largely accepted by them. There was resistance to the status of individual classes, but not to the system as a whole. There were several reasons for this. First, the labels used by the SS matched existing stereotypes in the social environment; the camp regime only needed to radicalise them. (…) The badges helped provide a quick orientation as to whom one was dealing with, and whom could be trusted. Finally, collective powerlessness furthered the acceptance of the categories.1

The reds, the political prisoners, as also the greens, the criminal ones, would see it just for the pinks and the blacks, the homosexual and the asocial ones, to have to end up in the camp. They did not think so for themselves, though.2 These distinctions were part of everyday life and the regime had only to crystallize these into a rigid taxonomy, which ensured such segregations and social separations. Sociologist Maja Suderland further explains:

In Bourdieu’s terms, the social structure within the concentration camps could be described as follows: The social space of the concentration camp was not a counter-world, as it is often depicted, but was, on account of its prisoners’ classification system, among other things, more of a distorted reflection of the normal space of society outside the camps.3

This radicalization was therefore possible on the basis of existing social habitus and, thus, it was not a complete new invention of the regime. Social preferences and inclinations had been acquired from outside and then adapted to the behavioural tactics inside the camp. A surveillance reinforced and performed by the subjects themselves, as they internalized the discipline demanded of them within the Panopticon:

The panoptic mechanism is not simply a hinge, a point of exchange between a mechanism of power and a function; it is a way of making power relations function in a function, and of making a function function through these power relations. (…) This Panopticon, subtly arranged so that an observer may observe, at a glance, so many different individuals, also enables everyone to come and observe any of the observers. (…) The panoptic schema, without disappearing as such or losing any of its properties, was destined to spread throughout the social body; its vocation was to become a generalized function.4

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault informs us further of another feature of the panoptic schema. It ‘makes any apparatus of power more intense: it assures its economy (in material, in personnel, in time); it assures its efficacy by its preventative character, its continuous functioning and its automatic mechanisms’.5 Through these lenses, one can observe the functions of bureaucracy and how its procedures fulfil the demand to control and being controlled, by simply following the orders.

Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up. (…) Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine. (…) He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constrains of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relations in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.6

© Archive of Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, DaA A 0540 00000.
Nazi concentration camp coding system.

© Vivi Touloumidi. P and OST signs displayed at Nazi Forced Labor Documentation
Center Berlin-Schöneweide.

The discipline of bureaucracy contributes to disindividuation, since it enables the facelessness of the bureaucrat. The established bureaucracy of WWII served well in processing bodies intersectionally. Its engine provided a safe distance for the administrators to perform as it is assigned to them. I could feel this clearly while going through the files at the Bundesarchiv; and this experience helped me comprehend better what Hannah Arendt meant by ‘the banality of evil’. How detailed and elaborate their discussions were for such a peculiar task, while the war was escalating.7 The extensive files I accidentally found, which discussed the demand for a redesign of the OST, tell another story about the triangle patches used at concentration camps mentioned above.

Within the context of thinking through jewellery and my point of departure as a craftswoman, the process of following up on these letters was an intense experience. The chosen articulation in the texts, the nature of the proposed designs, and all the debates around them; they were all good demonstrations of the efficiency of bureaucracy, as described by Max Weber, but also a clear insight into how this condition preserves the dehumanizing distance that is necessary to follow such orders. It is also this distance that provides the ground to reduce a body to a category; be it gender, race, nationality, or any other argument that justifies oppression. Classification of bodies and oppression go hand in hand.

But then we also need to better understand that identity management is a strategy for survival, as sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life on how we appear to others vs. how we are being perceived.8 The demand to conceive a new OST sign for the workers, who came from the new occupations in the eastern regions, was not only conceived by the Nazi regime. It was a bottom-up initiative as well, which aligned with ongoing political and economic pressures to incorporate new labour forces for the support of the war machine. The collaborators wanted a new badge for themselves; and they negotiated better conditions for themselves. In 1944, a ceremony in Berlin introduced the new labour force to their new patches. The new designs would translate to better living conditions and wider social mobility of their labour bodies. Their social status would increase. Most of them belonged to the younger generation and were well educated. Soon after, though, this new endeavour was left incomplete and the whole plan was abandoned.9

Meanwhile, again from the perspective of craft-making, it was interesting to look through the files of this project and read the reasons of why it had taken them so long to come to an agreement; what was not good enough for them? What should they improve in the implementation? Which suggestions were preferred and why? Therefore, my publication Pharmakos (2022) dedicates a generous part of its volume to publish these letters and the accompanying drawings, which speak for themselves.10

What does all of this have to do with today?

The contemporary is not only the one who, perceiving the darkness of the present, grasps a light that can never reach its destiny; he is also the one who, dividing and interpolating time, is capable of transforming it and putting it in relation with other times.11

By looking at moments of tension or crisis, much can be revealed about our behaviours and what matters to us or even who we would really become, only if we were allowed to. The same goes when we look at moments of discomfort and shame that reveal internalized norms and prejudices; and how these perform. The publication is titled pharmakos:12 this term is tactfully chosen. It relates to the historical ritual of the 'scapegoat', which has come to mean that any group or individual innocently bears the blame for others in times of social conflict and crisis. The oppression strategies are more sophisticated and complex today and, therefore, even more difficult to unpack and dismantle. It is not straightforward right-wing populism that attacks the rights of self-determination once again, for her/him/them.

Nevertheless, my enquiry is not about reducing the contemporary era to a WWII mindset. But there are analogies of thought that resonate with an authoritarian conservative approach emerging once again today, which reproduces binaries, cultivates fear against the Other, but love of one’s Heimat, boosts the feeling of solidarity to a we, and, last but not least, promotes the role of women as mothers confined to the family.

Echoes reverberate from several locations. ‘Specifically, the assault of reproductive rights in so many countries today constitutes an element of necropolitics’,13 such as the current legislation on abortion in contemporary Poland. The Constitutional Tribunal that came into force on 27 January 2021, ruled that abortion on the grounds of ‘severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life’ was unconstitutional.14 Each country is pushing differently and governments can take their chances, according to their political agenda. How direct or well-packed this can be, varies. For example, a failed advertisement of the first fertility conference in Greece15 in 2021 was not as naïve and only a well-meant gesture towards the well-being of women.

Moreover, recent research in gender studies and right-wing populism can provide even more explicit examples from countries such as Hungary. ‘The Hungarian case is one of few in Europe in which “gender” is politicized by the government itself as “gender ideology”, which supposedly threatens “traditional families”, children’s identity and, overall, the future of Europe.’16 Sociologist Imke Schmincke, in her essay “Sexual Politics from the Right. Attacks on Gender, Sexual Diversity, and Sex Education” observes a new form of anti-feminism during the recent years that does not attack feminism or emancipation per se, but rather the construction of gender:

Especially in Eastern Europe, ‘gender’ is interpreted and attacked as an expression and representation of neoliberalism and Western colonialism. (…) The discourse around ‘gender ideology’ must be understood as a tool in fight for cultural hegemony. (…) The project to (re)gain cultural hegemony has not been restricted to a specific region, but instead must be seen as a transnational project.17

The progression of how gender policy is reduced to family policy and then is narrowed further down to demographic policy to finally arrive to fertility policy is enlightening, to say the least. Gender policies of the Hungarian government are understood as family policies, thereby excluding issues not directly related to the family. In return, the latter is then framed within demographic policy, where related issues of demography are excluded, such as the education system of existing children, the legal situation of gay and lesbian couples, or the care of the elderly. Though the ageing of the Hungarian population is of utmost importance, the ‘care of the elderly has been omitted because demographic policy is understood solely as fertility policy: It aims to boost the child-bearing capacities of women (…)’.18

To resist is to exist otherwise

Juxtaposing the emerging polarizations mentioned above with my own craft practice made the urgent need to investigate the sociopolitical agency of the wearable medium even more obvious. How to take aesthetic decisions by having the political in mind? How to distil from the past and suggest an alternative subjective narrative? Contemplating these questions expands the understanding of adornment and the making process.

My work vom Abzeichen zum Auszeichnen, shown on the images, was initiated as a response to such re-emerging locations of thought, as the ones just described above. The persistence in putting people under these categorizations and differences. The need to classify people under some criteria. The practice to cultivate a monoculture of identity. The aim of the work, therefore, is to produce a token of self-determination and resilience. The objection to their restriction is its only counter-argument.

Embarking into a fluid process of constant becoming. Socially constructed and imposed restrictions limit this fluidity of existence and one needs to be alert to how these appear in power relations and systems. And even aesthetic experience is not autonomous, but rather a ‘socially and historically constituted disposition’, according to Pierre Bourdieu.19 As for Judith Butler, ‘the body always already wears a cultural history’.20 Therefore, identities, more than just merely formed, are also stabilized and naturalized by social practices, which demonstrate more tolerance to the reproduction of stereotypical entities.

And within this frame, vom Abzeichen zum Auszeichnen is an assemblage.

© Vivi Touloumidi
vom Abzeichen zum Auszeichnen, 2020-2022
badges in anodized & coated aluminum, st.steel
10 x 8 x 12 cm

The title of the work emerges from a file of the Bundensarchiv and appropriates the logic of the administrator. In this document of 1944,21 the bureaucratic guidelines regarding the new signs that were meant to replace the old blue-white OST of 1942 also provide a further suggestion of an additional badge that needs to be created. Thus, for those labourers of an exceptional performance. This latter one should be an exquisitely beautiful fabrication and also count as an award badge of distinction. On this note, the German title vom Abzeichen zum Auszeichnen is meant to translate: from a stigmatizing sign to a distinction. The work borrows its name from this file, while its aesthetic references refers to the black triangle of the concentration camps that was assigned to the asocial group.

vom Abzeichen zum Auszeichnen in context

Audre Lorde has told us already that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the house’,22 but LGBTQ+ movements seem to have used these same tools already. They appropriated and subverted the pink triangle of WWII decades ago as their emblem to protest their right of otherness. It is the pink that is mostly known today, which was initially assigned to male bodies only, though. ‘Female homosexuality was not punished under National Socialism’,23 but when lesbians had to be classified, they often belonged to the asocial group. An interesting distinction, don’t you think?

According to testimonies, back then, the pink triangle was a bit larger in size compared to the other badges, so that one could identify this one easier from afar. The black was, on the other hand, a far more intersectional and diverse classification. Many kinds of bodies belonged there. People who were homeless, disabled, mentally ill, or prostitutes would be registered as blacks. Every attitude that transgressed the top-down guidelines could be reason enough. Though men were in these categories as well, historically, it is believed to be the most feminized section of all since 1940.24 ‘The categories did not reduce inequality, but rather engendered it.’25 Non-conformist women who did not serve the regime’s ideology and reproduction purposes were not welcome. Today, the black one can still be found as a low-cost badge within lesbian scenes but is not that common. Lesbian communities are aware of it, but do not employ it much.

By appropriating and subverting an element, one mirrors it back to its initial starting point. Antonio Gramsci coined this as detournement. Nevertheless, a detournement can work the other way around as well. Being in control of such signs is an illusion, in the least. During the pandemic, anti-vaccine protesters appropriated the Star of David for their campaigns.26 Some even imprinted the word Covid in the centre of the star. Still, this gesture fails to grow beyond the stigmatizing function.

vom Abzeichen zum Auszeichnen aims at growing beyond the degrading function. Rather than specifying an alternative, it is more about becoming emancipated. Maintaining this as a life-practice, as a way of being in the world. The work does not suggest either what this emancipation is really about or who one should be, which (id)entity, or even how one arrives at a certain positionality. Rather than on a fixed (id)entity, it sides on the emergence of a becoming in motion. And maybe, due to the aesthetics of these pieces, in comparison to the typology of jewellery and the mainstream collective habitus that is accustomed to it, this could then be a moment of ambiguity. One could ask: what is this person wearing? And thereafter start a conversation. The viewer needs the whole underlying story to decode it and even if this takes place, it is not a fixed and final thing. Only the wearer knows. Nevertheless, ‘like articulation and identification, expression is an essential step in a stage of emancipation’.27

The project’s thinking process fuses the semiotic, the auto-ethnographic, the political, and the poetic.

Classification of bodies and oppression go hand in hand.

While considering the historical references, personal background, and feminist inputs mentioned above, the implementation of the work, in its materiality and aesthetic choices, emerged through performing the research itself. Reading about Actor Network Theory and thinking about agency had an impact on this. Such as contemplating: When and how does an actor become active? Or, when does the actor misbehave by not acting as expected? Looking through these lenses put into action a different way of observing and being present. Not only in the making process, but also during the research stage itself. I paid attention to how my experience at the Bundesarchiv was influenced by all the non-human agents I had to interact with; for combing through the files, the appliances, the tables, the scanners; even the construction of the rooms played a role. I became a bureaucrat myself for a while and stationary tooling jumped into the creative process quite naturally, as all became flat. Moving from the Büro-desk to the studio-bench. The work is an assemblage that emerged intuitively, while performing classification to manage the file load. The construction of the proposed adornments merges the paperclip and black triangle to resemble a badge of honour, a medal of distinction, as the Bundesarchiv files also propose to do.

The word adornment is used with intention here. Jewellery falls short today, as it implies merely material connotations. But adornment, which focuses on the gesture of wearing, might therefore be a better choice. Adorning puts the attention on the action of wearing and therefore is a closer link to confrontation and responsibility of the social body in the public realm. Nevertheless, the kosmos, which in ancient Greek also means jewellery, is closer to my point of departure, my own practice, and this work. Rather than a wallpaper added on the surface of the body that is building an extra concealing layer, one can think of it as a reverse movement, coming out of the body and showing one’s universe to the world. And primarily, to oneself.


Vivi Touloumidi

is a Greek artist, researcher, and craftswoman. Since 2018, she is a lecturer at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp and a co-curator of the artistic research seminar METHOD/ART. Currently, she is conducting a PhD in the Arts under the title Pharmakos at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp and ARIA (UAntwerp). In line with this research, she published the book Pharmakos (Track Report / Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, 2022).


  1. Sofsky, Wolfgang. The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp. Translated by William Templer. Princeton, 1997, p. 123.
  2. Helm, Sarah. If this is a Woman. Abacus, 2015.
  3. Suderland, Maja. Inside Concentration Camps. Polity, 2013, p. 163.
  4. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Vintage, 1977, pp. 206-207.
  5. Foucault, p. 206.
  6. Foucault, p. 202.
  7. Herbert, Ulrich. Fremdarbeiter. Politik und Praxis des ‘Ausländer-Einsatzes’ in der Kriegswirtschaft des Dritten Reiches. Dietz, 1999, pp. 307-310.
  8. Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor Books, 1959.
  9. Herbert, pp. 307-313.
  10. Touloumidi, Vivi. Pharmakos, Adornment as a Social Tool. Track Report 22/3, 2022.
  11. Agamben, Giorgio. What is an Apparatus? Stanford, 2009, p. 53.
  12. Touloumidi, p. 1.
  13. Majewska, Ewa. Feminist Antifascism, Counter-Public of the Common. Verso, 2021, p. 57.
  14. “Regression on Abortion Harms Women in Poland.” Human Rights Watch, 26 Jan. 2022, Accessed 3 March 2022.
  15. “Τρέιλερ: 1ο Πανελλήνιο Συνέδριο Γονιμότητας & Αναπαραγωγικής Αυτονομίας Όρια & Επιλογές.” YouTube, uploaded by Proto Thema, 13 June 2021, Accessed 3 March 2022. The video is in Greek.
  16. Kováts, Eszter. “Post-Socialist Conditions and the Orban Government’s Gender Politics between 2010 and 2019.” Right-Wing Populism and Gender, edited by Gabriele Dietze and Julia Roth, transcript Verlag, 2020, p. 76.
  17. Schmincke, Imke. “Sexual Politics from the Right. Attacks on Gender, Sexual Diversity, and Sex Education.” Right-Wing Populism and Gender, edited by Gabriele Dietze and Julia Roth, transcript Verlag, 2020, p. 61.
  18. Kováts, pp. 85-88.
  19. Rocamora, Agnès. “Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Fashion.” Thinking through Fashion, edited by Agnès Roscamora and Anneke Smelik, Bloomsbury, 2020, p. 241.
  20. Wissinger, Elizabeth. “Judith Butler, Fashion and Performativity.” Thinking through Fashion, edited by Agnes Roscamora and Anneke Smelik, Bloomsbury, 2020, p. 294.
  21. Touloumidi, p. 55.
  22. Lorde, Audre. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Penguin Modern 23, 2018, p. 16.
  23. Kleinmann, Sarah. “The Black Angel-some Notes.” Pharmakos, Adornment as a Social Tool. Track Report 22/3, 2022, p. 89.
  24. Benz, Wolfgang and Barbara Distel. Der Ort des Terrors. Band I, C.H.Beck, 2006, p. 97.
  25. Sofsky, p. 122.
  26. Oltermann, Philip. “Germany to Crack Down on Covid Protesters in Yellow Star Badges.” The Guardian, 26 January 2022, Accessed 16 Feb. 2022; “German Call to Ban ‘Jewish Star’ at Covid Demos.” BBC News, 7 May 2021 Accessed 16 February 2022; “Munich Bans Use of Nazi ‘Jewish Star’ at Coronavirus Protests”, DW, 31 May 2020, Accessed 16 February 2022.
  27. Gielen, Pascal. “The Rising Empire of Ambiguity, On the Art of Getting Beyond Identity Politics.” The Aesthetics of Ambiguity, Understanding and Addressing Monoculture, edited by Pascal Gielen and Nav Haq, Valiz Antennae-Arts in Society, 2020, p. 22.