Signals, Gestures, Collective Bodies

Very happy to contribute my text Signals, Gestures, Collective Bodies: Uncovering the Dissident Feminism of Gabriele Stötzer’s Art to Andreas Beitin, Uta Ruhkamp, Katharina Koch (Eds.): Empowerment Kunst und Feminismen, Berlin, 2022.

Read More

In the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the emancipation of women was considered as subsidiary to that of the working class. The equality of the genders was inscribed in the GDR constitution, and so the question was accordingly considered to be resolved in this socialist state. In reality, people socialized as women were, however, rarely present in the higher echelons of state institutions or companies and found themselves confronted with the double burden of full-time employment and reproductive labor at home. But these disparities and contradictions were rarely taken on politically, even in the GDR’s dissident scenes. To do so or to call oneself “feminist” was, in fact, frowned upon.[1] Women artists active in these circles felt themselves to be in opposition to the state, more so than men,[2] and often sought their emancipation in emulating, rather than subverting or resisting, these male-centric ideals of the underground.[3] Few practices—like the ones of Annemirl Bauer or Angela Hampel—made explicit reference to gender or “womanhood.”

The collaborative performances of the Erfurt artist Gabriele Stötzer (b. 1953 in Emleben, Thuringia) stood out, as they challenged the socialist state’s concepts of being collective, of gender, and of art, but they also broke with the self-understanding of the country’s dissident and underground artistic scenes that she was a part of. Where the latter espoused the (male) artist’s autonomous body as a rare site of refuge from the socialist system’s demands, Stötzer’s art elaborates a dissident, female, collectively configured body that is at its most liberated when it is maximally decentered, fragmented, and open to the world.

The text at hand is dedicated to the specific feminism of her practice that rests in the forms of being together in embodied vulnerability made possible in her work.


A Profound Physical Experience of Disruption Gives Rise to a Collective Art Practice

Gabriele Stötzer (known by her married name of Kachold at the time) had initially been active in the dissident literary scenes of her hometown of Erfurt. She would develop her unique collaborative and body-centered performative practice after an experience that shattered her perception of her physical and mental self and her place in the world. In 1977, Stötzer had been arrested and sentenced to imprisonment for signing and distributing the infamous open letter against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, the dissident singer-songwriter. She spent seven months in Hoheneck, the “murderer’s fortress,” the infamous prison for female felons with convictions for violent or political crimes.[4] The encounters with her fellow prisoners under the prison’s conditions of extreme physical and psychological hardship would profoundly disrupt and alter her perception of herself, of her gender, and of the socialist project in the GDR. Of her imprisonment, Gabriele Stötzer later said: “my whole image of the GDR and of women collapsed at once.”[5]

The bodies of her fellow inmates, the women murderers, thieves, and prostitutes, defied two configurations of the female body that not so much competed as overlapped in the GDR: the traditional (petit-)bourgeois female body of the girl “from a decent family”[6] and the socialist body of the disciplined and productive woman worker which had superimposed itself onto, rather than replaced, the older, bourgeois ideal. Neither of these squared with the behaviors of the women in jail: “women who love each other physically, who tattoo themselves, who swallow spoons to kill themselves, and for whom neither real existing socialism nor her parents had prepared her. The image of the tidy and hard-working mother and worker—embodied by her mother and propagated by the GDR regime as the image of the ‘emancipated’ woman—fell apart.”[7] In Stötzer’s own words, there were “biographies and qualities that i could not reconcile with my image of women.”[8]

Upon her release, Gabriele Stötzer 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 art. She found that the reworking of her (gendered) self after its violent disruption during her imprisonment had to be collective, that it could not be achieved alone. To find the collaborators she needed for her creative process, Stötzer began joining together with others, usually women, who had likewise had negative experiences with state-run organizations. Under constant surveillance by East Germany’s Ministry for State Security (Stasi), and despite its attempts to disrupt their activities, the women met once a week in Stötzer’s private gallery and in squatted condemned buildings that had been converted into photo labs and studios.[9] They talked about dreams, experimented with singing and sound,[10] and made clothes and props in which—or without which altogether—they filmed and photographed each other. Friendships laid the foundation for a relationship of trust that made it possible for the women to push their limits. Stötzer once described her work with these women as a barter transaction: “offering them nothing but their own bodies back as a experience, as feeling, as sensing, as the crossing of a threshold of their own unanswered questions about their female sex.”[11]

Over time, Stötzer’s invitation drew increasing numbers of women (and even some men) into a “collectivist work and life concept”[12] that became indistinguishable from her art—and that, in doing so, confounded both older Socialist Realist concepts of the relationship of art and society and the “underground” or “non-conforming” art forms developed in response to the former by her peers.


A Double Escape: Resisting Patriarchal Oppression in the East German State and Its Underground Scenes

For many artists of her generation, escape from the stifling ideological encroachment of the state had meant withdrawing into the hermetic, homogeneous circles of the “underground” and into an explicitly apolitical art. The individual artist body, conceived of as male, was not only the source of (individual) artistic authorship, but also a place of rebellion against and freedom from the demands of the regime. The figure of the wild, “free” male bohemian artist loomed large.[13]

Gabriele Stötzer’s decision to work with women and on the subject of womanhood, was, accordingly, a provocation for both the East German state and the oppositional circles in which she moved. In 1984, she founded the GDR’s only existing artist women’s group, known as the Künstlerinnengruppe Erfurt (Erfurt Women Artists’ Group), later Exterra XX. Over the years, Monika Andres, Tely Büchner, Elke Carl, Monique Förster, Gabriele Göbel, Ina Heyner, Verena Kyselka, Bettina Neumann, Ingrid Plöttner, and Harriet Wollert, as well as Ines Lesch, Karina Popp, Birgit Quehl, Jutta Rauchfuß, and Marlies Schmidt, took part in the group’s activities with more persons participating occasionally.[14] Instead of working along a binary opposition between underground and state, the group’s experimentations took on patriarchal forms of repression shared by both. In the safety of the forms of sociability and collaboration fostered within the group, the women explored their own and each others’ bodies outside and against gender and societal norms.

To emancipate themselves from the double assault of the equally patriarchal regime and underground they could no longer seek shelter in a supposedly liberated male-connotated individual artist body, experienced as a mode of oppression itself. The bodies in the photographic and filmic experimentations of Stötzer’s group are no longer heroic; they are wounded, fragile, vulnerable, and interpenetrating with the world. In some their photographed interactions, bandages conceal and constrain a body or connect two bodies into one; in others, bodily openings are marked or pulled open with hands, skin is stretched and pulled or painted upon. To liberate oneself means to be radically collective, open to others, and decentered in these works. By moving beyond given configurations of gender and of political binaries of underground versus state, these bodies sense and try out ways of being that the available languages of that time could not (yet) express. They came to function as anticipations, experimental configurations, of what Gabriele Stötzer calls, in regard to her own bodily sensing, “a new reality,” and of which she says: “this other reality was not the west.”[15]


A New Reality: Stötzer’s Feminist Art and Activist Practice Merge into One

The film signale (signals) was a project that her group started in the spring of 1989, and that would turn out to be anticipatory, even “divinatory” in this way. “signals was about something obscured, it called on something other, not yet speakable.”[16]

A few month later, the “new reality” that their work had signaled toward, began to explode into glorious being all around. When the revolution began in the autumn, the women’s experimentations opened out effortlessly into the rapid politicization—the collective rethinking—of all arenas of life. The implicit (or micro)politics of their feminist artistic collaborations was filtered into concrete (macro)political acts. The group Frauen für Veränderung (Women for Change) formalized out of Stötzer’s circles and built on the material and immaterial supports the former had put into place: networks, resources, skills, along with mutual knowledge and trust.[17] The group played a significant role in Erfurt’s weekly demonstrations and, for the first time, organized gatherings for women only at the city’s town hall.

On November 8, 1989, Stötzer spoke out in front of the 300 members of the new group:

against men as leaders

against leaders

against roles

against images

against the images of women of the last 40 years[18]

In the revolutionary moment, the taking apart of the ideological, political configuration of GDR socialism, of roles and political hierarchies, and the taking apart of its specific configuration of gender, of patriarchy, became addressable as one and the same. The aesthetically mediated forms of collective “self-” and “woman”-hood, which Stötzer’s collaborations had been elaborating for some years, could now also and finally begin to be named—and inhabited outside of her art. On November 8, the bodily signals in Stötzer’s art found their communicability beyond the small circles of her collaborations—at least for a short moment in time. The particular constellation of the political, of art and gender, that Stötzer’s practice had begun to weave out of the contradictions and the increasing porosity of their state-socialist conceptualizations began to gain visibility and entered the realm of the possible.


After 1990: Stötzer’s Art and Its Politic Become Illegible in the Vocabularies of the West

The revolution’s political rerouting toward German national unification in the winter of 1990 made short shrift of these experimentations and dreams. After October 3, 1990, as the East German state and its specific cultures disappeared into an enlarged Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), so did the dissident femininities like those elaborated by Gabriele Stötzer and her group. Both Stötzer’s dissident feminism and her political-aesthetic explorations of new forms of being collective became once more unspeakable—in the now dominant vocabularies of the West.

Feminist languages, too, honed in the particular struggles of the West, have missed the ways in which state socialism’s ostensibly progressive social and gender politics enabled and disabled differently gendered ways of being—and the strategies developed in response. Western understandings of art, likewise, made not only East German art practices disappear from view, but also, and maybe more crucially, the material and discursive contexts in which their aesthetics and politics could be read. Art-historical analyses of the GDR’s artistic underground, often deeply steeped in communist and anti-communist binaries inherited from the Cold War, have tended to reiterate precisely those strongly gendered—male connotated—notions of the liberated, autonomous artist genius that Stötzer’s practice crossed. In consequence, her practice received little attention for many years.

It is good news that interest in the work of Gabriele Stötzer and her group is now on the rise. Decoding and uncovering the knowledge and the possibilities of being differently, dissidently gendered—which their bodies, preserved in film and photos, signal into our present—is a generous and careful feminist work calling to be done. The wonderful task of unearthing the treasure of this feminist heritage is now at hand.


[1] Angelika Richter, Das Gesetz der Szene: Genderkritik, Performance Art und zweite Öffentlichkeit in der späten DDR (Bielefeld, 2019), p. 136.

[2] Ibid., p. 144.

[3] Various terms have been used to describe individuals and groups in the GDR (including its art scenes) who saw themselves as critical of the state and its institutions or who were perceived by the state as critics or opponents: oppositional, dissident, nonconformist, underground, and many others. However, none of these terms convey the whole picture, especially when it comes to the protagonists’ self-perception.

[4] Claus Löser, Strategien der Verweigerung: Untersuchungen zum politisch-ästhetischen Gestus unangepasster filmischer Artikulationen in der Spätphase der DDR (Berlin, 2011), p. 290.

[5] “Gabriele Stötzer: Anklagepunkte,” n.d., zeitzeugen-portal, Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, YouTube, (all URLs accessed in June 2022).

[6] Rebecca Hillauer, ‘Zeit hinter Mauern’, der Freitag, October 18, 2002, sec. Kultur,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Stötzer quoted in Karin Fritzsche and Claus Löser, Gegenbilder: Filmische Subversion in der DDR 1976–1989; Texte, Bilder, Daten (Berlin, 1996), p. 75.

[9] Stötzer in conversation with the author.

[10] Löser 2011 (see note 4), p. 294.

[11] Fritzsche and Löser 1996 (see note 8), p. 76.

[12]  Löser 2011 (see note 4), p. 296.

[13] Richter 2019 (see note 1), p. 108.

[14] Ibid., p. 131.

[15] Fritzsche and Löser 1996 (see note 8), p. 76.

[16] Stötzer in an email exchange with the author, May 2013.

[17] Stötzer and four women from her circles would, for example, launch the first successful occupation of a local Stasi headquarters in the country, soon to be followed by others elsewhere. See Peter Große, Barbara Sengewald, and Matthias Sengewald, “Die Besetzung der Bezirksverwaltung des Ministeriums für Staatssicherheit der DDR am 4. Dezember 1989 in Erfurt,” Gesellschaft für Zeitgeschichte, n.d.,

[18] From the document “geredet im rathaussitzungssaal vor frauen eingeladen von der bürgerinneninitiative frauen für veränderung am 8.11.89 gegen 22 uhr,” private archive of Gabriele Stötzer.

curating is care

curating is care—on the conditions of care in practices of critical curating

was my contribution to Anna Schäffler, Friederike Schäfer, Nanne Buurman, AG Networks of Care, nGbK, (Eds.): Networks of Care. Politiken des (Er)haltens und (Ent)sorgens, Berlin, 2022

Read More

curate (v.)

from Latin curatus, past participle of curare “to take care of”; see also: cure (v.); late 14c., “to restore to health or a sound state,” from Old French curer and directly from Latin curare “take care of,” hence, in medical language, “treat medically, cure”). Also: to “be in charge of, manage” a museum, gallery, art exhibit, etc. An earlier verb, curatize (1801) refers to the noun “(church) curate;” late 14c., “spiritual guide, ecclesiastic responsible for the spiritual welfare of those in his charge; parish priest,” from Medieval Latin curatus “one responsible for the care (of souls).1

if curating is care then care by whom, for whom, of what? if curating is care then how?

who takes care and of whom? the institution of the curators? the curators of the artists?
the artists of the institution?
all of the above but vice versa?

who takes care of protecting the time-space in which creation can happen? who takes care of the integrity of the works?

who takes care of the audience?
is to care to comfort or is to care also to challenge? does care show up as abundance?
or is showing less care?
what is the work of the viewer?

if care of the audience and care of the curators, care of the artists and care of the institution do not collapse neatly into each other—should one form of care take precedence over the other? whose care is privileged if care is a limited resource?
who decides?

what is the work of curating? is thinking work, is reading work, is going around listening to your thoughts settle work? how can its value be measured?

in the quantity of formats, of art works,
of visitors,
of twitter mentions,
of reviews?
or by the quality of the relationships a process of curating enabled? how to measure those?

who measures?
the producers? the audience? the institution? the funders?

is a work of curating successful if it leaves its makers depleted?

can criticism be caring?
and is it caring to aim for perfection?

can the work of taking care be made visible? which work and whose?

the work of cleaning the toilets or that of talking through the night until a particular problem has found its solution? the work it takes to take a deep breath when you want to fly off the handle, or the work it takes to get your breath back when another has done so?

which of these kinds of work are we paid for? how are we paid?
is pay care?

how is a fair rate of pay calculated? based on needs,

the respective value assigned to different types of work by the so-called “free market”?

should the work of curating be paid the same as that of the artist, the flyer designer, the person at the ticket counter? is it care to pay everyone differently or to pay them exactly the same?
should someone be paid more if their work is incredibly boring?
should we be paid for the time it takes to replenish our own bodies?
who pays for the babysitter?

should we fight to increase the pay to fit the amount of work invested in an exhibition’s creation? or limit the amount of work we invest to the amount of pay available for it? do we have the courage to leave one wall empty?

what about payment in recognition?
in cultural capital?
in friendship? support?

with the promise of any of the above at some point in the future? with the joy of creation?

is it enough?
how can we be generous with ourselves and each other?

is agreeing to work for free or for little an act of care? is it a privilege? is it a duty? is a work still critical if it is paid for? is a work still critical if it is well paid for?

if i told you i was paid 150 euro before taxes for writing this text, and that it took me 8 hours, would you consider this adequate, too much, too little?
for this amount of pay should my text have been longer, shorter, more comprehensive or less so? would it make a difference if i said that to work on it has been a struggle, but also a pleasure?

should it matter?
how do we sit with the contradictions of the economies and the politics or our practice?

how can we conduct our work and our encounters as a practice of taking care of ourselves and each other? (and if my self-care comes at the expense of that of another—is it still caring? and vice versa?)

do we already know, or do we still have to learn what a work and a work context that cares looks like?

how do we learn together?


Elske Rosenfeld, born 1974 in Halle/S. (GDR), works in different media and formats. Her primary focus and material are the histories of state socialism, its dissidences, and the revolution of 1989/90. The questions of this text are based on experiences of working as an artist and exhibition maker in the political art scenes of Berlin, such as her most recent work as a member of the project “…oder kann das weg? Fallstudien zur Nachwende” at the nGbK/ such as most recently as a member of the nGbK working group “oder kann das weg? Fallstudien zur Nachwende”. The text also builds on the text- image-collage work “Symposium”, created in 2014 with Freja Bäckman.


1 and ne_crossreference#etymonline_v_42912

Review: Covergirl

Covergirl: Wasp Files. History and stories of an image, a narrative (Spector Books, 2016) is about a series of encounters and entanglements between a number of biographies, images, and works of art.

Read More
It documents and completes the eponymous project Leipzig-based artist Alba D’Urbano and photographer Tina Bara developed between 2007 and 2016 in response to a set of artworks and publications by conceptual artist Dora García. Their project raises questions about how processes of appropriation, abstraction, and (de)contextualisation can come into play when historical materials are valorised into works of “critical art” – and that are relevant beyond the concreteness of their case.

During a residency in Leipzig in 2007, García, conducted research into images held by the East German state security service Stasi. In the resulting exhibition at the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst (GfZK), a video showing a fictionalised meeting between a Stasi informant and their case officer was accompanied by several series of ready-mades: photographs found in the files of, among others, a group of women, captured sunbathing and chatting together in the nude. Unbeknownst to García, one of the women was Tina Bara, a photographer and professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Leipzig, a stone’s throw from the GfZK. Covergirl’s story begins in 2007 just after the closing of the show, when Bara finds herself, superficially “anonymised” with a black bar across her eyes, on the cover of García’s exhibition catalogue, which her colleague D’Urbano had brought back from the gallery to their shared offices.

Covergirl documents the series of appropriations and re-appropriations that transported the nude photo of Bara and others from the particular, historical context of the 1980s GDR’s dissident cultures via its regime of mass-surveillance and its historicisation into the space of contemporary international critical and commercial art. With the support of D’Urbano, Bara traces the images back to a weekend excursion of members of a women’s anti-militarisation group, Frauen für den Frieden [FfF, engl. Women for Peace] in the mid-80ies, where they had been taken by her friend and fellow activist Katja Havemann. They ended up in the hands of the Stasi during a raid at another of the women’s homes. In 1990 the “wasp files” (“wasps” was the Stasi’s codename for the group) passed into the custodianship of the Stasi Records Agency (BstU), an institution set up to preserve and provide access to files for victims and researchers. The images were discovered there by the Spanish artist during her research; who would then them on display in her Leipzig show, sell them as art prints, and use one of them – Bara’s naked image – on the cover of her catalogue. García decided not to seek or include further information on the images’ context of origin or their passage into the hands of the Stasi, nor to try and ascertain the identity and whereabouts of those portrayed. She mislabels the series: “Women, naturist meeting, end of the seventies”. Her e-flux announcement describes the work’s artistic merit like this: “The material here presented out of its historical context reveals itself surprisingly, as a peculiar form of narrative: conceptually highly interesting examinations of human behaviour and gestures that at times call to mind the Theatre of the Absurd.”

D’Urbano and Bara’s book is based around a reversal of García’s decontextualising and abstracting move: it reconnects the catchy catalogue cover back to the historical constellations of intimacy, resistance, and repression from which it was lifted in order to be valorised as art. A trail of correspondence of Bara with the Stasi Records Agency as well as with the Spanish artist maps the ethical and legal grounds and the professional and institutional motivations that guided the image’s transit across contexts and times. But the two artist’s project does not aim at or exhaust itself in this reconstruction, nor in passing moral judgment on the ethics of the Spanish artist’s work. The book and the art works it documents elaborate their own, different approaches to the nexus of history, biography, image politics, and aesthetics engaged by the images’ transposition into art. Felix Guattari and Suely Rolnik among others have used the term ethico-aesthetic to show the two, ethics and aesthetics, to be intrinsically linked. In García’s and the Covergirl project such constellations are made, often around quite similar formal aspects, in vastly different ways. It is through their juxtaposition that the book broaches valuable questions about the ethical and aesthetical economies that elevate documents of past violence into objects of value in the circuits of contemporary “critical art”. I will go over a few of them here:

De/Re-contextualisation: In García’s work artistic value is produced through the decontextualisation of the images, freeing them up for the artist’s formal and conceptual play and skilful inter-textual referencing (“conceptual examinations”, “theatre of the absurd”). But to understand the ethico-aesthetics of such a move in the image’s concrete case, this de-contextualisation must itself be contextualised:

An international art audience may or may not be aware that East German perspectives were at the time of the work’s presentation largely absent, not just in the international field of art, but also in German mainstream discourse itself. A German Gedenkpolitik [commemoration politics] that passed its historical judgment in binary vocabularies inherited from the Cold War, had invisibiled lives lived in degrees of acquiescence and resistance to a repressive regime. Blanket condemnations of all things Stasi had foreclosed a discussion in which some form of accountability or reconciliation might have been achieved. It was in this space of absences and open wounds that García lifted her as yet historically unprocessed materials, as decontextualized footage into the international field of contemporary art.

D’Urbano and Bara’s works, take precisely the opposite path, of re-contextualising or, in fact, creating a context for the readability of the images in their historical, political significance. In the absence of public discourse, contemporary art can and often has become a proxy space: people come to art to assure themselves of their otherwise invisible past. The video Re-Action and the photo tableaus of Story Tales (both from 2008-2009) can provide such a space for its protagonists and audiences: In both, D’Urbano and Bara revisit the women portrayed in the series of nudes, returning the images to the women, and the women into the images.

Figurations of Other/ Self are part of this re-appropriation and are engaged, once again, differently here and in García’s work. The latter skilfully fine-tunes the exact degree of otherness/exoticism and abstraction (“naturist meeting”) that make the women’s bodies maximally available for the free play of the desires (conceptual, formal, sexual) of the both, her the creator, and the consumers of her work.

By contrast, D’Urbano and Bara’s works reinvests these bodies with personhood in ways that can be expected to challenge, rather than service the expectations of international art audiences (possibly even in welcome ways). The project’s strength also lies in how the two women bring their different and constantly shifting degrees of proximity and distance to the images and their story to bear: It is clear that D’Urbano needs Bara, and Bara needs D’Urbano to make this work. Where García construes the material and its personnel as “other” to an unmarked, “neutral” artists’ or art viewers’ self, D’Urbano and Bara address their respective otherness to or entanglement in that materials throughout – as that which enables and conditions their dialogical approach.

The question why García’s othering failed to raise any alarms in an art world that has thankfully become more sensitized to the violence of such acts is interesting in itself. It is clear however, that the point of D’Urbano and Bara’s intervention is not to say that histories should only be owned and worked on by those directly affected by them. In Covergirl it is precisely the collaboration between the two artists – the absorption in and processing of her past of the one, the witnessing and sorting through of the other – that makes their interventions work.

Anonymisation/ the black bar/XX contributes to the othering performed by García’s work. Her picture series does not addresses the black line she dutifully applied to all faces: it remains an unwelcome, but necessary blip in the picture – a response, as minimal as possible to legal requirement, spilling its (presumably) unintentional associations of criminality, illegality, or obscenity onto its depersonalized subjects. In a later, bizarre and unpleasant twist of the story the letters XX will take on a similar function in García’s book Steal this Book. Here it will anonymise Bara’s beautiful and heartfelt letters to the Spanish artist, which DG reprints here, again, without Bara’s knowledge or consent. To the naked body of subject that does not speak, García adds speech that has no author-body. When Bara confronts her with this renewed transgression, the Spanish artist explains that she did not seek permission, because she had worried that Bara would not grant it. Well, yes…

D’Urbano and Bara, by contrast, make the black bar into another site of formal and contextual analysis in the Covergirl works. Their video and print series Re-Flection (2010-2011) play with the aesthetics and mechanics of the black line, including its use by the Stasi Records Agency (who permitted the use of the pictures on the condition that they be anonymised this way) and in García’s work. When the black bar slips from Bara’s face to her crotch (or rather, to the crotch of a life-size photo of a naked female body on one of D’Urbanos “skin dresses” which Bara wears), the work adds an interrogation of the naked female body in art history, porn, its shaming and disciplining.

These and the other works of the Covergirl project show, that attention to a work’s ethics and to the context in which it unfolds, does not have to come at the expense of its aesthetic effectiveness. That, on the contrary, artistic value can be made there: where historical, relational sensitivity deepens and expands a work’s formal, aesthetic richness and complexity.

When García’s deploys Bara’s nakedness on her book’s cover, all we learn is what we may have already feared: that what works for the most opportunistic realms of advertising still works to sell a book as critical art. D’Urbano and Bara decided to put Bara’s picture on their cover, too. But when we squint at it, to make out a figure among the bitmap of black dots on a reflective ground, what we catch sight of is mostly ourselves.


This text was written for the Blog in 2021.

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.

Read More

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…

Read More

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,

Read More

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.