In/visible – Karl-Marx-Allee’s Return to Legibility in Art

This text was produced for the project Treffpunkt: Karl-Marx-Allee (Meet-up at Karl-Marx-Allee)

The word “visible” remains visible within the word “invisible”. Cover up the “in”, and it appears. The prefix negates as much as it preserves. Read More

In 1968 the Czechoslovakian artist Július Koller retraced the white lines of a tennis court with white chalk in one of his artistic actions.[1] Once completed, his act of overwriting became invisible, but not without first doubling the space traced. By artistically (and invisibly) overwriting the tennis court, the artist made this everyday place legible in a new way: as a work of art.
The subject of invisibility pervades the history as well as the aftermath of Eastern Europe’s artistic underground, including that of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). In many art scenes, for example in Czechoslovakia after the suppression of the Prague Spring, the literal imperceptibility of actions in public space was both a political strategy and an artistic concept. Various forms of over-affirmation and working between the lines also played with INvisibility.
Meanwhile in the GDR, performance art and experimental film art practices were not recognised or categorised as art by the establishment and were hardly shown at all in official art exhibitions. Artists themselves often didn’t view ephemeral practices and artistically mediated forms of togetherness as art either, because they did not fit into the traditional artistic categories that persisted even in those circles considered non-conformist at the time. The unification of Germany in 1990 saw the GDR’s artistic practices fall into a renewed state of invisibility, this time even less strategic or intentional, in an overwriting of culture that made things disappear rather than duplicating their legibility.
GDR architecture also disappeared from many cityscapes after 1990. Post-unification artists and activists have documented this disappearance, marking or capturing threatened or already demolished buildings in their work. Itself an overwriting of previous architectures that were no longer considered contemporary, Karl-Marx-Allee has survived the course of GDR history and its erasure in Berlin’s urban space after 1990.
The GDR remains visible, indeed, hypervisible – and yet still invisible – on Karl-Marx-Allee. Here it is hidden in plain sight, or rather in hyper-visibility.

The street and its architectures are there to be seen, but who can still read and understand them? A West German viewer might see a type of architecture in which all floor plans are the same and assume that all residents were treated as equals here. An East German neighbour might know that the upper classes of the GDR once lived here, not necessarily richer than the rest of the country, but privileged in terms of the location of their homes. Who takes this representative project of the GDR at face value, and who knows of the conflicts and ideological battles it obscures? Who still recognises the names of those who lived here, many of them members of the GDR’s cultural elite? The street must be coaxed into telling its story. Without a mediating voice, it will remain silent.
The project Treffpunkt: Karl-Marx-Allee (Meet-up at Karl-Marx-Allee) sees three artists take on this mediating care-work. Thus Karl-Marx-Allee becomes a sort of inversion of Koller’s overwritten tennis court: a place that needs an artist’s touch in order for its original meanings to become legible.
All three parts of the project play with different formats of INvisibility: the walk, the projection, the performance, and the temporary installation are only visible for a short time and only live on as memories connected to their locations for those who witnessed them.
In her work Hier, Berolinastraße! (Here, Berolinastraße!), Ingeborg Lockemann examines the particular form of invisibility lived by lesbian women in the GDR. These women placed personal advertisements in which they gave terms from everyday life double meanings that could only be deciphered by those in the know. Ingeborg Lockemann’s plexiglass works engraved with these terms are also transparent, discreet, and hidden – visible, but perhaps easy to miss for anyone not in the know. Michaela Schweiger brings to the fore that which usually remains unseen in Wir, 2021 (We, 2021). For this work, residents have clothing tailor-made based on patterns from Sibylle, a magazine for fashion and culture founded in the GDR in 1956 and discontinued in 1995. Their hourly wages will be calculated in correlation to how much rent they pay, illuminating material conditions not usually on display: the cost of living and the value of an hour’s work.

The eponymous protagonist of Babette im Rosengarten (Babette in the Rose Garden) wanders the cityscape in a performance by Inken Reinert, revealing pieces of history before disappearing once more. Only the rosebushes arranged around Babette as props that briefly turn into art will remain. After the performance they will be given to residents. Stripped once more of their secondary meaning as art, they will return to their existence as rose bushes, nothing more.

[1] Július Koller, Time/Space Definition of the Psychophysical Activity of Matter 1 (Anti-Happening), 1968

Translation by Moira Barrett

Harun Farocki’s “Hard Selling” reframed

Our booklet HaFI 014: Harun Farocki: Hard Selling: Reframed by Elske Rosenfeld (Deutsch/ English) is out now. It contains the script and stills from Harun Farocki’s film project “Hard Selling” which I respond to in my text-image commentary “Das Fenster / The Window.” The film was supposed to be shown on East German TV – one month before its dissolution at the end of 1991. It was, however, never completed. In the footage Farocki looks at a West German adidas salesman as he looks at the East through car and shop windows. In my commentary, I look back at both from a post-East perspective.
The booklet is available at Motto.

Gabriele Stötzer: The Collective as Liberation

This text for Fotograf # 37 is based on my research into the work of East German feminist performance artist Gabriele Stötzer for my (upcoming) book project “A Vocabulary of Revolutionary Gestures”: Gabriele Stötzer’s collaborative performances stand out from the practices of the late GDR’s artistic underground. They string together elaborations of the collective or the political, the (female*) body, and of art, in ways that challenged configurations of art and the political in the 1980s GDR. Today they challenge understandings of “East German non-conforming art” that stress the individualism and autonomy of such works.

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Stötzer began taking photos of her body, and later those of others, after her release from the infamous Hoheneck Women’s Prison. She had spent seven months there in 1977 after signing and distributing the infamous open letter in support of Wolf Biermann, the dissident singer-songwriter. Upon her release, she found that she could not talk about her experience, but that it returned to her in mental images. Unlike other former political prisoners who turned their main focus of activity to politics, Stötzer found herself pushed toward poetry and towards art. Her work on her trauma and away from it, began in this field between embodied experience (“sensing”) and communicability. Exposing herself “again and again to the horror and the joy of the existential other”[1], she knits the act of aesthetic expression together with a re-constitution of the self in its relation to others and the world.

This desire to organize these confrontations with an other or others into collective form became increasingly pressing and central for Stötzer. She found that the reworking of her self-hood – and of her being in the world – after its violent interruption during her imprisonment had to be collective, that it could not be achieved alone. She developed her remarkable collaborative practice from here. She began to recruit women in the streets of her hometown Erfurt for her work.

“I began looking for women who might want to work with me […] I began an exchange with these women […]I wanted their bodies but could not pay them, but in taking their bodies I could give them their bodies back as a experience, as feeling, as sensing, as the crossing of a threshold of their own unanswered questions about their female sex.”

In 1984 Stötzer made a photo series of a young person, ostensibly a man*, posing for the camera in drag. The model seems to have opened up to her completely in front of the camera, exploring their gender in a way that is playful, vulnerable, and tender. Stötzer identified with her model’s departure from socialist norms and standards – of gender in this case. “Mein Janusgesicht” [my Janus-face] she wrote on the back of one of the prints. This comment later proved prescient in other ways: the model had been informing on her for the Stasi (very likely pressured because of their supposedly “deviant” sexuality). The series exemplifies Stötzer’s ability to empathize with her photographic counterpart and demonstrates her distinctive practice of inviting her models as creative collaborators.

For many of her generation, to escape from the violence and the ideological encroachment of the state had meant to withdraw into the hermetic, homogeneous circles of the “underground” and into a mythical or “existential” art. The individual artist body, conceived of as male, was not only the source of (individual) artistic authorship, but also a place of safety and purity – vis à vis the ideological encroachment of the state. For Stötzer, by contrast, to emancipate herself from an experience of state violence, meant not to seek shelter from the concreteness of the world in a supposedly liberated, heroic individual body, but to become collective, to open herself more intensely to the lives and experiences of others.

In Veitstanz/ Veixtanz, a film made by Stötzer in 1988, a number of scenes are filmed in the immediacy of the recognizable landscapes of the late East German everyday, setting off their lines of flight from there: a cast of characters one would find in any East German city of the late 1980s – a young punk, a middle class person (maybe an office clerk or a school teacher), a footballer with a mullet, two teenagers with perms, earrings, and stonewashed jeans, a professional dancer, a peacenik are dancing themselves into states of ecstasy on a roof, in a backyard, in an abandoned building, on the street, in front of a garage, in the hills, in the sports ground, by the river, in a garden, on a playground, in a cave, in the park, on the pavement, in the light, and in the dark. The here and now is indexed in the clothes, hairstyles, mannerisms of this cast of characters, that are both random, and exemplary for the late GDR. A simple instruction – to dance oneself into ecstasy – first intensifies this present in these bodies’ particular ways of moving, then lets it spin away.

Stötzer’s practice is powerfully liberating in works like this – where it departs not only from the configurations of gender, or collectivity of the socialist state, but from the close confines of the individualism and escapism of some of her underground peers. Where it jumps into an immersive questioning of the world outside, through which her collective experimentations unfolded their very own forms of being in and towards the world. Stötzer’s careful nurturing of the sociabilities that fostered and were enabled by her work, contributes to the unique and enduring, political and aesthetic power of her work.

[1] Karin Fritzsche and Claus Löser, Gegenbilder. Filmische Subversion in der DDR 1976 – 1989. Texte, Bilder, Daten (Berlin: Wolf, Gerhard, 1996), 78.

 

Gabriele Stötzer (*1953 in Emleben/Thuringia) is a visual artist and writer, working in film and performance. Largely self-taught, she developed her unique collaborative and feminist films and (filmed) performances in the aftermath and response to her imprisonment in the late 1970s. Her work has recently begun getting long overdue attention in Germany and beyond.

Statement for the Future: Documentation

Through a very lucky twist of fate I got to spend the days between the 102nd anniversary of the start of the Russian revolution and the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the end of the East German revolution – 7th to 9th of November – in Bucharest in the company of a bunch of artists and activists, young and old from Bucharest, Budapest, Cluj, Timisoara, Prague, Warsaw, Bratislava, St. Petersburg, Kyiv…

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I was invited to give a “statement for the future” as part of “Upon us all equally” , organised by the tranzit network, in the amazing Sala Omnia/ Former Communist Party assembly hall. You can watch documentation of my 15 min statement, assembled from manifestos, lists of demands, public statements of groups and individuals, dissidents, work collectives, women’s and lesbian and gay organisations from the autumn and winter of 1989/90 here:

Double hommage to Ana M.

Today the Ana Mendieta show was attended by few, mostly women,
alone and in pairs, walking and watching,
silently.

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In the third room, in the dark between three projections,
a visitor lies stretched out on her back on the museum bench. Sandals with red straps and rhinestones, black top, black shorts. She fills out the length and width of the bench almost exactly, perfectly.

I stand with her for a while and type into my phone:

I am interested in
the universe
in this time and
in this place.

 

Inviting Utopia, Reading

You are cordially invited to “Inviting Utopia: Radical dreams and practices in and beyond the 1989 revolution” – a reading with Max Hertzberg, author of the East Berlin Series, and myself:

18th Jan 2018, Buchhafen
Okerstr. 1, Berlin (Neukölln), 8 pm ( in English).

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Max will read from his trilogy of political fiction set in a counter-factual post-1990 GDR and talk about how he saw a grassroots democracy as a real possibility. I will be reading from the prelude of my forthcoming book A Vocabulary of Revolutionary Gestures which sketches the radical scope of the practices and projections of the 1989 revolution. (in English)
https://buchhafen-berlin.de/en/category/events/

You can find more on Max’s fantastic East Berlin Series here: www.maxhertzberg.co.uk

Max’s background articles on the revolution of 1989/90 are to my mind the best comprehensive summary of the events in English and are highly recommended:
http://www.maxhertzberg.co.uk/articles#content 

“Standing Still”

My text “A Vocabulary of Revolutionary Gestures: Standing Still” has been published in Feminist Media Studies. Volume 17, 2017 – Issue 4: Affective Encounters: Tools of Interruption for Activist Media Practices. Contact me, if you would like a copy. 

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“Namibia Today”, Notes on an Exhibition

Commentary on Laura Horellis project “Namibia Today”, Donnerstag 9 Februar 2017, 19 Uhr

U-Bahnhof Schillingstraße, U5, Eröffnung und Rundgang mit Andreas Guibeb, Botschafter der Republik Namibia, Uwe Jaenicke, SODI e.V. und Thomas Lendrich (Druckhaus Gera)

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At U-Bahnhof Schillingstraße, on what used to be Stalinallee back when it was built, yesterday’s opening of “Kunst im Untergrund 2016/17: Laura Horelli” took place in more or less the heartland of the old East German establishment, so that, apart from the bracing cold, the sight of the assembled audience of well dressed older gents and ladies  sent me into a misty discomfort that was not at all lessened when the former Director of the Druckerei Fortschritt (Printing House Progress), current day director of the private Druckhaus Gera GmbH, took the mike.

Once in charge of one of the rare and exceptionally privileged party-owned enterprises, he began to extoll the joys of working for such a great and no doubt exceptionally privileged company in the service of what – as he (somewhat under his breath) conceded – was a somewhat bureaucratised, state-sponsored take on “international socialist solidarity.”

As the Director rhapsodised in front of the the mildly interested faces of the assembled art crowd, and the eager-going-on-blissful faces of the East German pensioners, (not to mention the completely non-comprehending faces of the apparently non-German speaking Namibian embassy staff), a slightly dishevelled looking middle-aged man appeared among the crowd of regular commuters a few meters down the platform and, beer can raised, launched into a loud – and near perfect – impersonation of one of the more famous of General Secretary Erich Honecker’s nasal pronouncements (the one about how neither ox nor donkey, will ever throw socialism off its inevitable course to historic triumph). An intervention that struck me as so absolutely accurate in its perception of the tone and content of the Director’s speech and so perfect a response, that I was sad to see the man disappear, back first, through the doors of the arriving U-Bahn, still reciting party slogans and quite obviously undeterred by the Director’s efforts at shutting him down. The latter, by the way, delivered with the kind of authoritarian condescension that I assume must be the prerogative of those – across times and systems – whose lives and aspirations align pretty damn smoothly with each particular system’s (often not so different) notions of a successful, valuable life.

Got me thinking, too, about the work of translation, or of whatever, that is still needed until a word as innocuous as “solidarity” can be understood in its always specific and changing connotations, until, in other words, particular uneasinesses can be shared a little more evenly across a Berlin (art) crowd – rather then held by a few, and released by one, beer can in hand (on a good day).

18.02. 2017

because of… i guess “life” in general, and “berlin” in particular, it so happened that i got into a conversation with a blogger for the swapo-critical swapo youth league and a scholar of african history last night and learnt, that “solidarity” of the GDR towards the african liberation movements involved having the stasi help from and train up the ANCs and Swapo’s security services – including instructions on torture. puts “solidarity” kind of into perspective.