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.

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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.

Double hommage to Ana M.

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

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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.


Doku zu Bischofferode

Was mich letzten November bei unserer Winterreise nach Bischofferode so beeindruckt hat, wird in dieser tatsächlich sehr guten mdr-Reportage noch einmal auf erschütternde Weise dokumentiert – und zwar nicht nur die absolut brutale Banalität der Logik (des Phantasmas) des Marktes, an der die gen Westen gerichteten Hoffnungen der Eichsfelder Kali-Bergleute schnell zerschellten, sondern auch das ungeheure und am eignen Leib erarbeitet Wissen dieser ostdeutschen wie anderer osteuropäischer Transformations-Generationen, die binnen weniger Wochen und Monate die Mechanismen des neuen Systems erlernten, also aneigneten, um sich in ihnen und dann auch gleich schon gegen sie zu ermächtigen. Oder es zumindest zu versuchen.
Unbedingt anschauen!

Empfehlung Webprojekt “Ausländer in der DDR”

“Zur deutschen Einheit am 3. Oktober wurden die bescheidenen Versuche der neuen und letzten DDR-Regierung von gezielter Einwanderung und menschenwürdigem Asyl zunächst gestoppt. Was die am Runden Tisch ins Leben gerufenen Ausländerbeauftragten, die couragierten Bürger, kritischen Publizisten, Gewerkschafter und Verbände 1990 unternommen haben, um erneute Abschottung zu verhindern, versucht dieses Projekt zu dokumentieren.

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Was ist aus den Ausländerinnen und Ausländern geworden, die wieder zurückflogen? Haben unsere Forderungen von damals die Welt von heute beeinflusst? Sind die Roma auf dem Bahnhof Berlin-Lichtenberg im Mai 1990 und die Flüchtlinge vor Lampedusa Teil einer Geschichte der Festung Europa?

Wir möchten über die Reflexion einer Umbruchzeit den Spuren ins heute folgen.

Es ist Klaus Pritzkuleits Idee und Vermächtnis, eine Form gemeinsamen Erinnerns zu finden, die spannende kurze Umbruchzeit 1989/90 festzuhalten und die vielen Schicksale von betroffenen und engagierten Menschen nicht zu vergessen.”

Auf diese unglaublich tolle und umfassende Online-Ressource zur Geschichte der Gastarbeiter*innen in der DDR und (Nach-)wendezeit bin ich gerade in meinen Recherchen zu 1990 gestoßen, sie sei hiermit begeistert in die interessierte Runde gegeben und wärmstens empfohlen: 

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)

You can find more on Max’s fantastic East Berlin Series here:

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: 

“Der Fall Monika Haeger”

In der RBB Mediathek kann man momentan diese sensible und umsichtige Dokumentation von Peter Wensierski mit und zu seinem Interview mit der IMS Monika Haeger von 1990 anschauen. Mir scheint, dass es für diese Art Gespräche 1990 ein kurzes Zeitfenster gab, dass sich dann rasch wieder schloss, auch weil sich die Fronten verhärteten und die Narrative konsolidierten. Vielleicht ist die Ausstrahlung 27 Jahre später auch ein Zeichen dafür, dass da wieder etwas in Bewegung geraten (sein) könnte.

“Zur Verfassung” – Berliner Hefte #5

Am 23. November 2017 erscheint unsere Publikation: Zur Verfassung – Recherchen, Dokumente 1989-2017, Berliner Hefte zu Geschichte und Gegenwart der Stadt #5 (Elske Rosenfeld, Kerstin Meyer, Joerg Franzbecker).

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Wir freuen uns, das Heft am 

25.11.2017, 18 Uhr
im Maxim Gorki Theater/ Herbstsalon
Palais am Festungsgraben
Am Festungsgraben 1, Berlin

vorstellen zu können.

Zum Heft:

1990 galt in Ost-Berlin für ein halbes Jahr eine Verfassung, die weitreichende politische Bürgerrechte enthielt. Diese waren aus den Erfahrungen der Revolution 1989 von den Bürgerbewegungen und der Opposition am Zentralen Runden Tisch der DDR formuliert worden. Die Verankerung der erweiterten politischen Rechte in der gemeinsamen Landesverfassung scheiterte jedoch im ersten Gesamtberliner Abgeordnetenhaus – einzig die Volksgesetzgebung wurde übernommen. Damit ist es in Berlin möglich, Gesetze durch Volksentscheid und ohne das Parlament direkt zu beschließen. Das gelang bisher mit den Volksentscheiden zur Offenlegung der Wasserverträge und zum Erhalt des Tempelhofer Feldes. Für letzteren stimmte im Mai 2014 eine Mehrheit in allen Bezirken. Dennoch versuchten die Regierungsparteien, das Tempelhofer Feld-Gesetz wieder zu kippen. In Reaktion darauf wurde 2016 das Volksbegehren Volksentscheid Retten eingeleitet, um die Volksgesetzgebung in der Verfassung zu stärken. Beide Vorgänge, 1989/90 und 2016, hatten zum Ziel, dass alle Berliner*innen an der Ausgestaltung der Verfassung teilhaben können. Sie bilden die Klammer für erschienene Heft.

Zur Verfassung – Recherchen, Dokumente 1989–2017 wurde von der Berliner Landeszentrale für politische Bildung gefördert.

Die Publikation ist die dritte von drei Berliner Heften, die im Rahmen des nGbK-Projektes Ene Mene Muh und welche Stadt willst Du? Beiträge zum Berliner Wahlherbst 2016 entstehen.

96 Seiten, mit einer Bildstrecke von Elske Rosenfeld aus Videostills von Klaus Freymuth
Elske Rosenfeld, Kerstin Meyer, Joerg Franzbecker (Hg.),
November 2017
ISBN 978-3-946674-04-7

Erhältlich über, und den Buchhandel