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.

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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.