A Vocabulary of Revolutionary Gestures: Standing Still.

Essay: Published in Feminist Media Studies. Volume 17, 2017 – Issue 4: Affective Encounters: Tools of Interruption for Activist Media Practices

The following text is part of a body of textual and artistic research into how instances of political change or upheaval affect and manifest in and between bodies, and how they persist there after such events are declared irrelevant or failed. “Standing still” is interrogated as a gesture that thwarts a concept of emancipation as linear progress in time, which is shared by both the capitalist and state-socialist modernities of the twentieth century. In the late 1980s, a sense of stasis engendered dissident aesthetic–political practices of slowness or standstill. These enabled the unity of artist and worker demanded by Socialist Realism and coveted by the avant-gardes—but at the expense of a future that could be known. Untethered from such a future, the revolutions from 1989 onwards, too, have become practices of being together in standing still. At Gezi, the Standing Man slotted his gesture with utter precision into the context of an existing present that rendered it politically meaningful. But “to stand still” is not the opposite of “to move.” This essay explores how stillness and its potential to act and counteract becomes the property of each moment of even the most un-revolutionary everyday.


1/ Countdown (Berlin, 1990)


The countdown in Ulrike Ottinger’s film Countdown (1991) consists of this: ten days of setting up her camera in locations around Berlin and Brandenburg, each day one or more scenes in which the camera quietly observes life going on. People taking a walk on what used to be the Death Strip along the Berlin Wall. Someone eating roast chicken in a street café near Schönhauser Allee. Roma children selling toys at a street-market near Bahnhof Zoo. On day 6, a trip to some villages around Berlin, where the slowness of the edit and the patience of the camera meet with an equally decelerated life. Women sit and chat, storks build a nest. Old men push carts across cobbled pavements. A cat is pruning herself on a windowsill. Time seems to stand still here, this could be in the 1960s, the 1950s, or earlier.


There is no difference in speed, really, between the timeless images from the Brandenburg villages and the empty streets of East Berlin, or the leisurely goings on in the Tiergarten, and those shots––of the gang of kids hammering away at the Wall, people, presumably East Germans, queuing at the discount stores around Zoo Station, or the election posters being scrubbed off the walls of the Karl-Marx-Buchhandlung in East Berlin––that pin the film to the specific and extraordinary time of its making: the summer of 1990 in the about-to-be-re-united Berlin. This is the end of June and we are counting down the days to the Monetary Union, the introduction of the West German currency in the GDR, the biggest step, yet, in one of the most dramatic turnovers in recent history, the return of the former socialist East Germany into the capitalist fold.


The camera finds pockets of quiet during a time when history is outwardly racing at a frenzied pace. Many of these scenes––in which nothing really happens––are ten, twenty, thirty minutes long.


On day 8, the empty shop fronts of East Berlin. A man plays on a harmonica. A café is out of food for the day.


Day 10 is July 1, when the East Berliners wake up in a new currency zone. The beginning of a new order of time. (The German word for “era”––as in “the beginning of a new era”––is “Zeitrechung”. Literally: a new way of counting time.) The camera pans along the queues outside two different banks on Karl-Marx-Allee, where people will withdraw their first wads of Western cash. On a wall behind one of the queues a graffito reads: “Geld macht nicht glücklich.” (Money does not make you happy.) But people are not looking unhappy as they leave the bank. In the evening, the camera travels to Treptow to watch children take pony rides in the amusement park, and old folks listen to a brass band at an outdoor café. The camera pans across the water to the Klingenberg power plant before it cuts to a final black.


Historically speaking, the ten days of Ottinger’s film are really a kind of a hinge between two temporal fields: between the slowness and the stagnation of the 1980s state-socialist East, and the frenzied recuperation of its territories and inhabitants into the ever-accelerating accumulations on which capitalism continued to feed. At the moment of turnover between state-socialist stasis and post-socialist neoliberal acceleration and busy-ness, the West Berlin-based filmmaker observes and enacts a stillness that is as non-capitalist as it is non-socialist. Untethered not only from a future, but from a concept of moving through time at all, the scenes of the film, shot at the in-the-process-of-being-disassembled Berlin Wall, display their at-oddness with both modernities’ idea of linear progress through time.

Moving backward and forward in time, around the temporal hinge of this historical moment, this essay traces lines of resonance from Ottinger’s filmic gesture of slowness through a number of aesthetic and political practices and concepts of slowness-going-on-standing-still that likewise diverge from a capitalist and socialist idea of time. It finds, again proposed in the formal choices of particular works of art, a time-space of embodied, reverberating past-present-futurity, from which a no-longer modernist notion of the political can be turned back onto history.


2/ When state-socialism grinds to a halt


Historical state-socialisms have assembled their very legitimacy around the modern temporal unidirectionality: “Class revolution is a historical event understood as an advance in time. What constitutes a victory is described in terms of historical progress rather than territorial gain.” (Susan Buck-Morss 2002, 23) From the early Soviet Union to the late GDR, the legitimacy of the Party, and the socialist state in turn, rested on its being the vanguard of this forward movement in time (28)––making it contingent on both the beauty of the state’s vision for a collectively achieved future, and the plausibility that such a future was already, or soon to be within (individual, biographical) reach (see Dietrich Staritz 1996, 224). By the 1980s, both the grandness and the believability of such a future were dwindling. The period’s general sense of stasis was where the system’s downfall announced itself, well before the fact. It was where the disconnect––between the perpetual self-affirmation of the state-socialist directives, the perpetual “Vorwärts” (Forward) of the slogans on banners hanging from houses or factory walls (or in speeches, or the names of institutions, associations, etc.), and a fundamental sense of being stuck, immobile, divested both from one’s personal betterment and that of society as a whole––made itself felt in the material, breathing bodies of the socialist citizens.


3/ In the late GDR, standing still becomes literal


Waiting and standing still in the late socialist period are not metaphorical or metaphysical conditions – these are daily, embodied processes. In Ottinger, who captures this sense of stasis well, people are queuing outside at least five or six different shops during the different episodes. On day 6, the camera pans along a long, single-file line of people outside a shop, up to the door, then along the façade, catching up with the queue again through a window, before coming to a halt, through a second window, on a bunch of sausages and some meat being sliced. Other queues are seen outside bakeries and a butcher’s shop; another outside a Berliner Sparkasse bank. People just stand, mostly by themselves, some of them reading, most of them not. Arms folded over chests or dangling. There seems to be no impatience here, not in the sense that we experience it today, no frustration and physical aggravation at being held back. Standing in line appears as a normal, everyday way to be. In front of the butcher’s shop, Ottinger’s filming falls into pace with the life it observes, and a world where any invocation of a better or perfect future has long since faded into the background, into a soft hum, a distant drone, that has little bearing on those who are tinkering, making do in a make-shift present, just getting along.


4/ The films of Thomas Heise: Stillness creates space for intimacy.


Such an alignment, of the slow pace of life, with the slowness of camera and editing, was common among Ottinger’s peers from across the Wall––the filmmakers of the late GDR. Their political, technical, and aesthetic reasons for choosing such slowness were, however, different from Ottinger’s. East Berlin filmmaker Thomas Heise is a good point in case. Heise, who was part of the important class of documentary filmmakers of 1978–82 at the Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen in Potsdam Babelsberg (see for example Petra Tschörtner’s great documentation Mamor, Stein und Eisen about this group) is the rare case of an East German film-maker with a post-1990 filmmaking career of some international reclaim. His films have been and continue to be slow. For starters, the limitations of his equipment made for a slowed-down filmic style. The video camera used in Heise’s pre-1990 films (a Western product—since video cameras were not available in the GDR—imported by Heiner Müller for Heise, ostentatiously for documenting the rehearsals of Müller’s plays) was “a stupid thing” in the retrospective words of Peter Badel, Heise’s cameraman (2014, 169–174). Its autofocus and its automatic exposure had to be tricked out of kicking in, and “slow, probing, careful” shots were a way of doing so. Also, to film in public, without a permit, made it advisable to move slowly, if at all: “When shooting something that you are not allowed to shoot, you can’t make a big fuss, you can’t change the lens, you can’t do anything that will give an impression of activity.” A technique was then developed from and beyond these constraints. “We had an agreement, that it is possible to stare at things for a long time, because we knew from experience that something happens when you hold a stare. It is worth switching the camera on and then not switching it off for a long time––and I am talking about really long rhythms with these kinds of shots.” To hold a shot until it has completely “exhausted itself.” When the shots are of people, as they most often are in Heise’s pre-1990 films, stillness creates space for intimacy. Camera, cameraman, and director sitting with the film’s protagonists. Not moving, rarely interjecting. Just being together, people and camera, until “peculiar kind of love” not so much becomes evident, as “knocks [a viewer] off her feet” (Jürgen Kuttner 2014, 27). In this accuracy and this love for these people “nobody becomes a functionary or stand-in for something, or a structural element.” Leaving space between questions and not stepping into silences is part of this method, as is “taking time and showing the gaps and the waiting, and the hanging around, when nothing happens,” and “even emphasising that.”


5/ Dissident proximities 1: Sitting still together in (non)socialist-realist love


Heise’s politics of love and of filmic closeness are very different from Ottinger’s distanced, “ethnographic” gaze (‘Women make…’ 2016), or a fly-on-the-wall, or cinema verité approach. “Heise is not Günter Grass and no Emile Zola.” (Kuttner 2014, 27) Heise’s cinematic closeness is physical (a sitting together around the table – literally) and it is also an atmosphere that is both enabled by and running counter to what is today denounced or held up as a specific East German “Gemeinschaftlichkeit”—a concept whose ambivalent associations as both solidary, supportive and grounding, and constraining, repressive and exclusionary are insufficiently communicated by the word’s English equivalent “communality”. It is a “GDR-phenomenon, where a socialisation via the trappings of a bourgeois upbringing” has largely disappeared after being side-lined through the grooming of a new middle class as well as intellectual elites from the working classes––as Kuttner writes (30) in reference to Heise’s (and others’) ability to connect with people from all milieus. “Teachers”, that are “proletarians inside.” A “rejection of intellectualism” that is shared by Heise, despite his father’s having been one of the country’s most well respected philosophers.


The GDR’s cultural politics of the late 1980s, when Heise began to film, make for a context in which “an art for the people” is very different from any such avant-garde aspirations in the West. Rather than something for the critical film-maker to strive towards, it was the official directive of a cultural policy that had begun in the 1950s with the increasing policing of Socialism’s greatest and most longstanding proponents in the arts, such as Brecht, Eisler, Lingner, etc. (Staritz 1996, 72). The dictate of Socialist Realism in the GDR, the policies of the Bitterfelder Weg, announced at the V. Congress of the Socialist Unity Party in 1958, made the “disalienation between the people and the producers of art”, the “overcoming of the gulf between art and life” into a requirement of the production of proper socialist art: “Feeling, living” with the common man (Werner Bräunig quoted in Trampe 2013, unpaginated).


6/ Dissident proximities 2: Sitting together in a futureless present


On the surface, Heise’s film Wozu denn über diese Leute einen Film? (“Why a Film About These People?”) (1980) follows this directive to the dot. The film was Heise’s first production as a film-student. A friend who worked as a sound-technician at the Academy of Fine Arts had had his motorbike stolen, but had managed to trace it back to its thief: a young, working-class lad from his Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood. Heise decides to accompany his friend to a meeting with the kid and his family (Annett Gröschner 2014, 17), and a number of filmed conversations ensue around the coffee table of the family home––sitting around, weaving in and out of a conversation with the kid, his brother, his mother. Sometimes the boy’s girlfriend joins in, too. Film-maker and the filmed sit in a shared disconnect from time that is created, yes, by the patience of the camera, the slowness of the edit, but something else, too: a complete detachment from any future––a greater historical, socialist trajectory as well as the prospect of a meaningful, upward moving, socialist life: “Tja, die Zukunft könn’ wa uns nicht vormalen. Wir müssen sehen, wat kommt. Wir lassen uns überaschen. Morgen könn’ wa tot sein,” says one protagonist. (Well, we cannot predict the future. We have to take it as it comes. Let it take us by surprise. We could be dead tomorrow.) For Heise it is this film itself that puts his future as a film-maker in doubt: Wozu denn … will be banned before it could be shown, and the Stasi begins an “operative procedure” on him, that will have him break off his studies in 1982 (19, and ‘VITA Thomas Heise’ 2016). Official policy has finally united the filmmaker and his working class protagonists––if mostly by casting them both into an ever-expanding zone of delinquency, a place outside of the limits of socialist usefulness.



7/ Dissidents of productive time: in West Berlin, in East Germany


Ottinger made her film from the margins of her economic, and temporal context, too. She lived in the Eastern part of Kreuzberg at the time. An area where the Wall all but cut off a chunk of West Berlin, sucking it into its temporal vortex inside East Berlin’s topographical embrace. A place where “fox and hare say good night to each other”, as Ottinger says in an interview (Ottinger and Hanisch 2016) ––a place at the end of the world and out of time. In the Kreuzberg of the 1980s, too, a lack or an active refusal of usefulness of certain lives is conditioned by and conditions forms of being out of––this time capitalist productive, career-oriented––time.


It is Taylorist, industrial time and its “kinetic impulse” (André Lepecki quoting Sloterdijk, 2006, 13), shared by the capitalist West and the socialist East (see Buck-Morss: 182 n., 290, 309 n.), that produces its narratives of both social and individual advancement––and their respective outcasts and dissidents on both sides of the Berlin Wall. Slowness is political in both places, but it is differently so: in the East, the films of Heise and others repeat the slowness of the everyday and its complete at-oddness with the persistent futurism that continued to be called upon to frame and give meaning to the lives within its terrain. Working from within what Boris Groys (2013: 166) calls the “territory of collective experiences,” Heise can use his slowness, without irony and without putting it on display, to create, once more, a sense of shared recognition that remaps the official concept of a socialist “we”.


In the West, where confrontation and subversion are the hallmarks of a valid aesthetic politics (2), Ottinger constitutes slowness as difference, as a practice of criticality (as is made explicit in some of her intertitles, see below). Here, slowness jams itself against a motility that connects up, and much more smoothly so, the ambitions and aspirations of individual subjects with capitalism’s ideological framings, as well the material demands of its productive sphere. At least for now.


8/ Linear time survives the revolution of 1989 – and makes it disappear


For the moment, in the summer of 1990, it appears that the West’s concept of progress, its claim to being the only true modernity, survives the collapse of its state-socialist alternative not just unharmed, but substantially revived. The failure of state-socialism can be rationalised away in temporal terms that leave modernism itself intact. According to such understanding, state-socialism has failed, because it was simply not modern enough. Jürgen Habermas declares as early as February 1990 that the revolution of 1989 (which is at that point still going on) is not a step forward in history, but merely a catching up––the final, long-overdue arrival of the formerly socialist sphere in full modernity: “The catch-up revolution [in the GDR] does not cast a new light on our old problems. Those, as Adorno might have put it, continuing negative factors amid an accelerated history, may explain a certain continuity within my proclamations of the past years.” (1990, 7) The catch-up revolution of 1989 is an event that inflicts no sense of doubt on the West German philosopher, and no degree of rupture on his concept of modernity. Subsequent analysts of the history of the GDR and its arts and literature have taken their cue from Habermas (or from the world at large) and explained all divergences between their respective Eastern and Western permutations as further evidence of socialism’s being pre-modern, or at any rate, not modern enough (see for example: Wolfgang Emmerich 2007). Now, after socialism’s evidently inevitable demise, all that needs to happen is for the cultures and people under its purview to catch up, that is, to be helped back into step with modernity’s triumphant course. Modernity, unblocked, can take its course and expand its reach, “catching hold in the East at last, not only with its technological civilisation, but with its democratic tradition, too” (Habermas 1990, 185). That such chronological ordering has implications for the West’s picture of socialism and the West’s picture of itself is clear. But it also performs a temporalized ordering that consigns the history of the revolution of 1989 (with its “all but complete absence of innovative, future-oriented ideas” [181]) to political irrelevance––and the rich tradition of dissident art, filmmaking, and activism along with it. The loss of these knowledges, their unrecognizability to even the critical scenes of the post-1989 West, only increase this temporal figure’s insidiousness.


From where we look at things in 2016, it appears that, in reality, though, it is the West itself that has to––and that will, eventually––catch up. Until it, too, “gets with the times” and arrives at the place where the contradictions of modernity’s temporal fiction (of upward linear progress in time, of perpetual, unfettered mobility) will have attained the same, glaring self-evidence. After capitalism’s moment of triumph, it will not take long for the cracks in capitalist-modernist time to begin to show. It will be the falling away of the communist counter-model itself, that will allow for the dismantling of the Western welfare state––and of any idea of steady social advancement along with it.


9/ The post-90s: A refusal to move, acted out in dance


In the arts, the field of dance was one that was maybe the most seismographically attuned to these shifts, since modernist ideas of unimpeded and perpetual movement lay at the heart of its own constitution as an artistic discipline, as dance theorist André Lepecki observes (2006: 7, 11). While queer and postcolonial theory progressively uncovered the unequal distribution of different bodies’ capacity to move ‘freely’––which means, of course, to be helped and carried through space and forward in time (13 n.)––, and while a human-made environmental crisis of unprecedented proportions gathered momentum towards confronting the world with its own finiteness and fragility, it was in the field of dance that practices of stillness were explored and politicised from the early 1990s onwards in their most literal and form.


In 1992, a set of dancers and choreographers decided, independently of each other, and ostentatiously without any coordinated plan, to refuse to move. This “eruption of quiet” (2000, 358) had one performer just lie on stage “reaching for his memories of the past” and another spend a night lying naked in a “nest” next to a motorway. Others stated, “that the political events in the world were such that they could not dance.”


To Lepecki (2000 and 2006), the appearance of slowness and standstill, blockage and immobility in modern dance is a decisive break in its history: a moment where the discipline turns in on its own ontological investment in modernity’s fundamental being-in-flow (2006, 1). A new field of reverberance between choreography and critique opens up and directs itself at capitalist modern time, adding a hitherto lacking temporal dimension to capitalism’s traditional Marxist critiques (Lepecki quoting Peter Sloterdijk, 13). A break from both modern time regimes opens a space for different constitutions of the political.


Ottinger’s slowness in Countdown is of a similar register. And just like some of the practices that developed in the post-1990s field of dance, it is more than a refusal to be efficient, or to be fast. If a vacuum, that comes up when “something is not immediately colonised by the already known”, is allowed to be, and to take up time, it produces something new. If space is given to a slowing down, it “produces its own acceleration” in turn. A politics that is responsive to reality can replace “a politics based on ideas”––whose time has, at any rate, passed. These are some of the few textual observations Ottinger has inserted into the film in the form of text-plates written by author/philosopher Eva Meyer, that introduce each of the 10 days.



10/ Gezi 2013: The Standing Man, or movements (don’t) stand still


It will take two more decades for such a politics of standstill to assert itself beyond the field of art, dance, and film, as a recognisable political practice of the streets. And it will take two decades, too, for revolutions that do not follow from ideas, and that do not take the form of a step forward, to be recognised as events of relevance. Until in 2011, in the squares of Cairo, and Madrid, and later Istanbul, the politicality of standing, and holding out––as a refusal to move and as a space for something to emerge––becomes evident, and a temporal and political space opens out and removes itself from modernist time.

In 2013, when Erdem Gündüz took up a stand––and held it––in Taksim Square, Turkish deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç commented like this: “We should encourage such protests within the law. However, I think they should stand for five minutes and then go to their work or school in the sixth minute. Eight hours is too long.” (Newcastle Herald 2014) Gündüz, a Turkish choreographer, had begun his protest/performance after police had used teargas and water cannons to clear the square of protestors, imposing a ban on public gatherings. Eight hours later, he was still there, unmoved. “At first some were baffled by his actions, or lack of them.” When the police approached to get a reaction out of him, he remained still. But on the second day, when the news of his standing had begun to spread, he was joined by 300 more solitary standing women and men. The police, who had been are largely immobile, too, initially, waiting to be instructed on how to deal with the incident, now had to decide for themselves when, that is, after how many hours of standing without movement, individual, copy-cat standing wo/men, will have become (too) political (BBC 2013).


Activists lauded the Standing Man’s tactics for exposing the absurdity of the policing of the square, but admonished the international press, who began to focus all of their attention on the standing man––to the detriment of more important developments, such as the installing of neighbourhood assemblies: the Standing Man was great, but “movements don’t stand still” (Nisancioglu 2013).


What is it then, in the gesture of Erdem Gündüz, that makes both these observations true: that movements don’t stand still, and that such a thing as a “static revolution” (Newcastle Herald 2014) is not only possible, but already happening?


The key might be to shift the grounds for such an understanding from the visual to the visceral: from a symbolic or metaphoric understanding of what it is Erdem Gündüz does, to a metonymic one––a distinction / move that Lepecki offers us from the field of contemporary dance: “Considering literal or metonymical (as opposed to analogical and metaphorical) relations between dance and politics becomes a fundamental step for political and critical theory to address the choreographic dynamics of social movements and social change––regardless if those movements and changes manifest themselves on the stage or in the streets.” (11)


11/ To stand still is, in fact, to dance


In a text from 2000, Lepecki performs such a metonymical reading on a pre-1990 example of stillness in dance: Steve Paxton’s “small dance” or “stand”––an exercise developed by Paxton when he was creating his methods of contact improvisation at Judson Church in New York the early 70s (342 n.) In the exercise, a dancer was asked simply to stand still, to “do nothing at all, except relax.” Except that, in this case, “doing nothing at all” appears to be a euphemism for kind of “doing everything at once”. Physiologically, to stand still is a complex balancing act. A body, trying to stand still, attached to the ground by the bottom of the feet, sways like an upside-down pendulum. Unlike a hanging pendulum, such a body has no point of rest, where its centre of gravity and the centre the of pressure, exerted by the feet on the ground, might settle into perfect coincidence, into one single, stable resting place. The multiplicity of small movements that are necessary to hold the body standing upright require the activation of all three––the visual, the vestibular, and the somatosensory –sense systems (DA Winter 1995). Between the small movements of a breathing body and the steady pull of gravity, the body must constantly re-organise; ankles, hips, knee joints move and adjust and readjust constantly. A still body is a body that sways, or, on could say, vibrates.


To stand still is, accordingly, as my dancer friends have been happy to confirm, one of the most difficult tasks a dancer can be asked to perform. But the point of Paxton’s exercise is not the challenge for the sake of it. He is interested in something else: as the bodies of Paxton, and his fellow dancers, become quieter, as movement comes to be reduced to the flows and motions that keep the body standing up straight, a shift happens in the dancers’ minds. As the mind’s attention moves to the microscopic movements inside the body, they become amplified into reverberating intensity (Lepecki 2000, 344). The stillness of Paxton’s dancers is not a symbolic gesture of a refusal to move. It is an exercise that must be experienced to be fully understood, or rather, felt – by the dancers themselves in this case. But Lepecki understands that an experience of slowed down time can be shared between dancer and audience (2000, 348), too––much like the change in perception achieved in the listeners of John Cage’s 4’33’’, a piece developed around the same time as the “small dance”. Stillness can be performed as a gift to the audience. (360)


Watching of Ottinger’s film, for example, has an effect like this on a spectator. Stepping into the speed of her film feels like being slowed down, or held back, physically. Like being jerked, violently, out of pace, at least for the time it takes for the body to adjust to the film’s speed. Conversely, a body that returns from the time-space of the film, finds itself, again physically, at odds with the world around. Perception has shifted, the world has become unfamiliar, and, until the effect wears off, one feels as if seeing everything anew.


In Paxton though, the crucial point is that the honing of the dancers’ perception, that is enabled by their slowing down to a stand-still, is what makes the exercise perceptible as dance at all: “[It] got its name first of all, because it describes the situation very well, and because, as one is doing the exercise and perceiving the ‘small dance’, one becomes aware that one is not actually, ‘performing’ or ‘doing it’, but that one is, rather, observing oneself executing it––like a body executing a function. Meanwhile the mind is not busy understanding anything, or looking for any kind of answers, it is not used as an active instrument at all, but rather a ‘lens through which certain observations can be perceived.’” (Paxton quoted in Lepecki 2000, 344) A dance comes into existence, because a body has gotten still enough for its dance to be perceived. In the shift of perception from the macro to the micro in the act of standing still, the difference between moving and not moving disappears. The difference between moving and being set or kept in motion disappears, too.


12/ Revolution as stillness: When action and passiveness become the same


From my own experience of the events in the GDR of 1989, and from reading the many accounts of the revolts from 2011 and 2013, a revolution strikes me as much the same: a moment of standing still together, in which the difference between moving and being moved, between moving and standing still, between becoming political and being recognised, or recognising oneself as such, is lost. Uprisings of this kind do not follow from plans or blueprints, nor are they prepared, predicted or called into being by theory.


It is certainly true, that often, the purposeful, careful, and steady work of activists precedes these exceptional events, as their protagonists are right to stress (see for example Erdem Evren on Gezi 2015), and that years of organising have confronted precisely those grievances that will later spark off an uprising. Yet, activists, and theorists of revolution and protest, too, are as surprised as anyone when the revolution suddenly manifests, not in the place diligently prepared for it over the years, but not too far from it, either––yet, each time totally unannounced: “out of a void” writes Evren, “out of the blue, tumbling down on us with the full force of an explosion, scarcely believable, even as it came”, write Nasser Abourahme and May Jayyusi on Tahrir (2011), a sudden creation of myriad possibilities “out of almost nothing”, writes Alain Badiou on the Arab Spring (2011). Marx and Lenin themselves, as Hannah Arendt has observed in On Revolution (1990, 256), were taken completely by surprise, when the revolution (of 1871, of 1917, respectively) finally took shape. Gilles Deleuze (in conversation with Antonio Negri, 1990) compares revolution to the sudden emergence of new pathways in the brain: Just as the latter cannot be explained by microsurgery, so the emergence of revolution is irreducible to the situation that gave rise to it; it cannot be explained, prepared, instigated, or willingly brought about. The Standing Man of Taksim became political, not of his own volition alone. It took his being there “too long”, and it took someone (the police, the bystanders, the deputy prime minister) recognising when that was. Neither art nor activism can force, or cajole into existence a revolutionary community, as Felix Guattari writes (2008, 451): it depends on “a thousand things” that cannot be willingly produced.


The becoming the same of active and passive that makes a revolution explode into being, or that makes it creep up on its protagonists, continues through an uprising’s course. A “common sense” (Guillermo Kaejane 2011) of sorts takes over –– the same shared sense that brought people to the streets, now renders what needs to be done self-evident. “In the stride of an event, the People is made of those who know how to solve the problems brought about by the event.” (Badiou 2011) Communication no longer has an origin; meanings, proposals, statements are never made, only passed on. A discussion is not about getting somewhere, but about keeping itself going. To narrativize what is going on, is not to represent, but to intensify everyone’s “I was there.” (Kaejane 2011) In such a moment, “there is only now.” The language of the revolution finds itself, when a slogan, tried out by one, is picked up by others and becomes common property. “A slogan circulates, multiplying.” “Some slogans find a melody.” (Neubert 2008, 168)


13/ Feeling Gezi: A revolution begins when the body appears


The subjects of revolutions cease to be the individual authors of their actions, and re-emerge as bodies in resonance. And, contrary to what modernity might have us think, a body that resonates with others, is a body that finally feels itself: “When your own voice rises to the chants […] you meet your own intimate noise.” (Cagla Aykac 2014) When the individual drops from view, it is the body that appears: “Feeling Gezi came before thinking it. Sensations ran along the soft core, because it is through bodies — rushing up hills, hidden in staircases and in each breath — that desires stretched into force. Feeling Gezi went through the sounds and the smells”. A body that becomes permeated by the sounds and smells surrounding it, becomes vulnerable and open to the world. Like the body of Steve Paxton’s dancers, such a body, that finally listens to itself in resonance, turns from a body as coherent image, as “projected skin” (Lepecki 2000, 336), to a dense, living, vibrating mass, in which the sonic density of the world reverberates: “Um corpo vibrátil”(Lepecki quoting Rolnik, 354). In the understanding of Brazilian psychoanalyst and cultural theorist Suely Rolnik (2012) such a body, that resonates with the world’s vibrations, can become sensitive to the discord between the world that resonates in it and the given cognitive mappings that tend to fix it into shape. The “disparity between the forms of reality and the movements that fluctuate underneath its apparent stability” can lead to an “estrangement”, to a “malaise” that gives rise to a creative, that is, a political impetus. (177) Or, put the other way around, if an estrangement grows too strong, a body is produced. A revolution begins like this.


14/ When the body appears, a shift in the world announces itself


For Rolnik, dissonant, vibrating bodies are not the product of exceptional political moments alone. They can emerge in each moment when the body becomes “vulnerable to what surrounds it [or lets] itself be taken over by the sensation of [such] disparity.” In everyday life too, in moments of ecstasy or crisis, a discord can become so resounding that it compels a body stop in its tracks, or to let itself be gathered up into a movement that will puts its relations to the world through an overhaul. The political becomes a property of each moment in which the dissonance between the world that vibrates through a body and the “world as we know it” goes from a quiet whisper to a resounding boom––heard by the many, or the one. Which is to say that it makes little difference in the end, whether the discord has become audible and has become unbearable, because it has grown louder, or because the listener has become more perceptive, in being quieter.


The therapeutic approaches and concepts of Guattari and––as we have seen––Rolnik, too, are practices, in which a personal breakdown or crisis can be listened to with regards to the attunements it requires in both the subject and the world. Guattari (2008, 68–69) instructs his fellow practitioners (therapists, psychoanalysts) to be alert to such openings, to become attentive to instances of crisis and opportunity––to recognise them, or allow them to be, where you would normally pass them over, or where you would use whatever little ways you have of getting things, surreptitiously, back onto safe grounds. When a discussion that has been flowing comes to impasse, when it hits upon a sudden sense of futility, then not to brush this off, could open an unexpected direction. Or, in a classroom, where one might normally decide to send home a child who has started throwing paper pellets at another child, because she got bored, or to have him stand in a corner, or to send him to a therapist, one might instead decide to dig deeper into the angry boredom of this one child, to check for something hiding behind it that concerns everyone, that points to a need for something to be readjusted, changed in the world.


To read such readjustments as different only in scale from the profound disassemblage inflicted on the subjects of large-scale uprisings might seem politically dubious. Like depoliticising the events of the past years all over again (which they already all too often have). Or it might mean, on the contrary, to enter not only the famous “personal” into arenas of the recognisably Political, but also those revolutions that left their most lasting traces not on the political structures and institutions, which they most often failed to change, but on their subjects’ irreversibly re-ordered selves. The presence of “innovative, future-oriented ideas” (Habermas on 1989, see above) or of a “counter-totality, or ideological assemblage to carry us into ‘permanent revolution’ and towards new formations of political structure” (Abourahme and Jayyusi 2011, 626, on Tahrir) might have ceased to be the hallmark of the politically relevant. Revolution becomes personal, but it becomes no less radical in being so. Radicality, like sound, cannot be measured in absolutes; it can be loud like a paper wrapper rustling in a silent scene in the cinema (or in the silence of John Cage’s 4’33’’); it can be loud like the shouting from the barricades.


15/ Writing about revolution – writing in vibration


Writing about revolution too, is an exercise in the volume of sounds. It’s hard to write about revolution and to write about the impact it can have on its protagonists without slipping into the dramatic or the over-exuberant (and why should one not). It’s hard to tally the need to do justice to the felt impact of such an experience with the desire to keep one’s feet on the ground (and why should one). Talking about a revolution can sound like whisper when a revolution seems out of reach, but it can seem to explode your eardrums when the revolution is finally happening.


But ultimately, a text such as the one at hand here, and any writing that wants to own up to and, let’s say, at least make the best of its own inevitable embeddedness in the flows of power and resistances, might be as much as anything an exercise in writing in vibration, that is, in keeping as close as possible, in listening as deeply as possible to the resonances of one’s material. To make oneself, as much as possible sentient to “a world’s work, bodies, rhythms, and ways of being in noise and light and space.” (Kathleen Stewart quoting Nancy 2011, 445)


In writing, and in the making of art or films, too, moments of recognition, can click into place. And moments of truth can come into fragile, temporary being between a text or an artwork and an audience. But here, too, such moments of breakthrough cannot be willed into being any more than, in the words of Guattari, “the Paris Commune or May 1968.” (2008, 451) The most one can do is follow, that is stay truthful to, those “sensations and tensions” that impelled one to start one’s writing, or one’s art-making (Rolnik 2012, 177–179) in the first place. Or to pick up a camera and invite oneself over for coffee to the home of the thief of a colleague’s motorbike. A work of art, writes Guattari (1995, 13–15) (using Lacan’s terminology) is like a “partial object” detaching itself from significations that have become fixed and dominant. These instances of poesis become possible (Guattari using the words of Bakthin now) when fragments of content “take possession of the author”, when he catches on to, and lets herself be carried off by, “the sonority of a word”, its meanings or connections, its “emotional, intonational” feel: “A whole organism together with the activity and soul of the word swept along in their concrete unity.” (15) Or, in the less dramatic words of Thomas Heise’s cameraman writing about Heise’s editing style: Others work from concepts, “Thomas interrogates the material that is there.” (Badel 2014, 174)


16/ History is not oblong, history is a heap


MATERIAL is also the name of the film Thomas Heise made in 2009 from footage he shot between 1988 to 2008, but mostly around the film’s gravitational center of the revolution of 1989. It only took him 20 years, and 20 years longer than Ottinger, to make a film out of his footage from that time. Maybe this means that the degree to which one is immersed in or affected by an event is proportional to the amount of time it takes to feel like one can say anything at all. Or maybe Heise’s long silence is to do with the specific out-of-timeness of this event, its post-1990 disappearance (beyond the Fall of the Wall to German reunification narrative) from history. Or with the over-saturation of the world, at the same time, with a narrow set of clichéd images (smiling people crossing border checkpoints on foot or by car or sitting on top of the Berlin Wall) and all the docu-soaps, too, “that have illustrated [that time] into unintelligibility” (Christina Bylow 2016). At any rate, it’s fair to say that MATERIAL was slow in the making, even by the standards of the film’s own decelerated speed: “Extremely long takes, an extremely reduced use of music, a somber and understated aesthetic; the commentary that is heard from the off during the three hour film could easily fit on the back of a beer coaster.” (Jonathan Diesselhort 2009)


Unlike Ottinger’s film, Heise’s MATERIAL does not exert its slowness on––or take it from––the revolutionary side-venues, but mostly from right in the middle of the revolution’s various centres, its demonstrations, its assemblies and meetings, the East German parliament. Right in the middle means––literally––right between the breathing bodies of a gathering of ordinary party members who are standing outside the Socialist Party headquarters on November 8. While the Central Committee decides on a new Politburo inside, the rank and file of the party have gathered in front of the building, waiting, in a mixture and hope and suspicion, for the new leadership to be announced. A microphone attracts a flow of men and women that feel compelled to speak. From where the camera stands and sways with the bodies around it, the microphone that has been set up on the building’s low front stoops floats in and out of view. Sometimes the camera turns, it dwells on the back of someone’s neck, on someone’s hand scratching their face. Where is the front, where is the back? Or, “Was ist oben?” (Where/what is up?), in the words of a voice, interrupting the speech of one official who tries to tell the masses to calm down.


Standing and filming right in the middle of things like this, writes Dirk Baecker (2014, 107) about MATERIAL, means being in the place of the greatest proximity, which is, at the same time, a place of no overview at all. “One should be able to see, but sees only material, no shape.” (Baecker 2014, 107) “Dwelling inside the material” it the phrase by Heiner Müller that gave the film its name (Artechoc spezial, 19.2.09 quoted on ‘MATERIAL …’ 2014).


In MATERIAL, stillness can mean to stand still and sway among people, or it can mean the complete absence of the sequential ordering into chronology that makes events into history. Not to “follow the course of the event, gathering how it comes about historically, how it’s prepared and then decomposes in history,” but “to go back into the event, to take one’s place in it as in a becoming, to grow both young and old in it at once.” (Deleuze and Negri 1990). Or in the words of Heise in the voice-over of MATERIAL: “One can imagine history as oblong. But, really, it is a heap.”


When history becomes heap-shaped, time loses direction and begins to vibrate. In a heap-shaped re-telling each and every past moment begins to resonates with whatever sense of possibility and hope it once held that has since been obliterated by history. Liberated in such a way, from the future (the concrete, contingent, often sad, and almost always disappointing future that followed suit) Heise can show the faces of the assembled masses of the November 4 demonstration as fully aglow. Filled with a hope and a confidence that has one has not seen and will not see again in any of the faces of Heise’s pre- or post-1989 films. With one exception: in an earlier film of Heise’s (Eisenzeit, 1991) a young woman in the first socialist model city of the GDR, Eisenhüttenstadt, has her eyes trained on a bright future ahead, her happy face full of certainty––of herself, and of the world’s inevitable forward course. Hers is a body that does not sway; it’s a body whose stillness is complete. Cast in stone, it is the body of a female statue set up around the town’s founding in the 1950s GDR.


Between the death-stillness of the young socialist woman’s petrified certainty, and the anxious hyperactivity of the cultural worker spinning around herself in 2016 is the place where Heise’s camera sways, quietly, in 1989, with the bodies of the protestors. At a place in time, where a communist future catches up with the revolutionary practices of a present, at last. Where giving oneself over to the small movements of a crowd that is standing still, intensifies an attention to the requirements and the possibilities of an immediate present until a being in movement makes itself felt. A possible politics resonates from there into our present via the revolts and revolutions of the distant and not so distant past.


This is a place where we can breathe.




This work was supported by the Austrian Academy of the Sciences with a DOC-Fellowship.




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