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,

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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)

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: 

“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.


On a screening of Thomas Heise’s “Stau”, Trump, Eribon, and a Nazi demo

Facebook and Real Life curated an interesting week for me, this past week. Kind of sad week, but maybe that is also the fault of the grey and the cold that sits unrelenting on this city and does not lift. So I have been working on a rewrite of the first chapter of my thesis/upcoming book, and it starts with a kind of quick run through of the rise and failure of the revolution of 89 and then an even more cursory run through of the rise and failure of state socialism in the SU and the GDR and a tentative connecting up of the two.

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And then Tuesday was the screening of Heise’s Stau at HAU, as part of the Heiner Müller programme there ( Watching “Stau” is always a strange experience for me (and I have watched it many times), the tenderness Heise feels and makes one feel for his subjects is something so heavy, so thorny, and so precarious, and I wish I shared Heise’s confidence in standing by it, publicly. Luckily (maybe), it is something that dissipates in Heise’s later films about the same protagonists, and as they settle into more solidly ideologically fortified versions of themselves our sympathy dwindles to nothing and things return to how they should rightfully be and feel. Heise screens “The Battle of Algiers” after, and then tries to figure out what that juxtaposition might mean with a panel including himself, Boris Buden and post-colonial curator Marie-Hélène Gutberlet, who in the process communicate nothing, except for a continuing failure of the two experiences of being leftwing (East, West, with Yugoslavia stuck somewhere in between) to communicate – seemingly mutually undisturbed by each other (except in confrontations, such as the one performed, for the one hundredth time, during this panel at the HAU) in 26 years.

Later this week, a German friend posts (thanks Christiane K.) a Guardian article that rereads Trump’s popularity as not so much an expression of irrational xenophobia, but as a rational (?) working-class response to the precarisation of the american blue collar worker through trade policies supported by republican and democrat elites alike ( and on a similar note:, and if we agree, I wonder if we would extend such a generous interpretation to the Pegida supporters in Saxony (a survey I saw somewhere a while ago seemed to suggest that motivations here are far reaching, too, and economic fears often as frequent as or more frequent than xenophobic ones).

Today then photos of a neo-fascist march ( that passed practically unhindered through the center for Berlin, and apart from the German and Reichskriegs-flags there are the Flags of East German cities (Halle) and provinces (Saxony, Brandenburg), and I am disturbed further by one banner that reads “Wir lassen und nicht BRD-igen”. This appears like a direct quote from the demonstrations of 1989/90, only turned on its head. In the winter of 1990 this slogan was used by the anti-nationalist left, that is, the parts of the groupings that first took to the streets for a reformed GDR, in the early demonstrations, when the “We are the people” that was devoid – by which I mean, utterly devoid – of nationalist connotations, staked a radical claim to political sovereignty by the people-as-demos as a non-identitarian and all inclusive collectivity (Ranciere later used this historical example to illustrate his definition of the political as disruption vs the policing of settled identities).

I wonder, with some discomfort, if what I see in those pictures from yesterday, and what we see in those pictures from Clausnitz and Bautzen etc. is really the failure of the revolution of 1989 finally catching up with the rest of us (or should I say, them?), 26 years after it failed for those of us who carried (from the moment we carried) the “Wir lassen uns nicht BRDigen” banners against and increasingly at the margins of a growing mass of (yes, generally more working class) protesters, who no longer felt represented by the citizens movements and their agenda of a renewed socialist state and, accordingly, pinned their hopes on the nationalist pro-reunification path.

Then there was this article, that someone posted today, (–warum-ich-aus-sachsen-weggezogen-bin) and it is sobering, too, and hints in a maybe similar direction in the last paragraphs, but there are no answers here, and neither do I feel that any will be forthcoming any time soon.

(originally posted on facebook, 12.03.2016)

Announcing DiEM

Facebook Post after witnessing the event DiEM 25 – Announcing the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025, 12.02.2016:

by a wonderous turn of events (that surprised no one more than myself) i ended up attending the inaugural event of varoufakis’ new pan-european coalition diem25 at volksbühne last night.

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i expected to find varoufakis at least charming, but he did not endear himself by starting off the evening by screening an agitprop/ motivational video featuring ominous brussel technocrats vs. blooming daffodils and a soundtrack by brian eno (who will have to be mentioned again later) …

varoufakis set the tone for the evening by spouting a set of banalities that was then echoed and repeated by a (long) procession of speakers, starting with katja kipping who (bless her soul) exuded exactly zero charisma, followed by various MEPs who suffered from much the same problem.

a video address by ada colau provided a temporary moment of relief followed/ continued by her deputy and the mayor of a Coruña, two sweet looking men, who spoke, briefly, and with the enthusiasm and humility of people who have actually in some small/not so small, and significant way made a difference to (and with) a number of real and struggling people, and who i very much hope will join forces with others like themselves and carry their fight from the streets to the centres of power.

the dramaturgy of the evening seemed to rest on the simple trick that the overall number and names of the speakers was not revealed until introductions were made of each subsequent speaker by varoufakis himself, who kept suspension high by not revealing the next person’s names until the end of each short presentation.

a woman in front of me who was wearing headphones for the translation at one point started proclaiming excitedly half way through one such introduction (much louder that she realised on account of the headphones): jetzt kommt der sisek, jetzt kommt der sisek. alas he did not. for another 5 or 6 speakers.

when zizek finally did appear (again via prerecorded video message) he added little more than his usual rant at those leftist romantics who apparently do nothing but dream of revolution all day, and endorsement of a realpolitik that seemed to be the discouraging bottom line of the evening’s generally underwhelming overall message – but at least he said nothing nearly as offensive as some of the things he has had to say about various subjects (syriza’s detractors, islamic/ist refugees) over the past at least and especially six or so months. but in a way of course it never matters what zizek says as long as he looks suitably mad and dishevelled and touches his nose a lot or tugs at his hair or his shirt. some of the most known and outspoken purveyors of all conceivable forms of political correctness of this city (i am not mentioning names here) were literally doubled over in their chairs with hysterical laughter, and had me wondering when it became acceptable to make such unabashed fun of someone’s nervous tics/ bordering on medically relevant condition. srećko horvat was luckily given less of a platform then he has been in some printed and live forums recently and used his speaking time mostly to remind himself and an entirely uninterested audience of how great it was that he was once again on stage with not one, not two, but three alpha celebrity lefties whose ranks he clearly aspires to join in the near future (on the merit of achievements known to himself alone).

i had to leave around 23.30 when the promised Q & A had still not started, but varoufakis invited gesine schwan in what i felt was a nice move, to speak and explain her support for as well as criticism of the movement – in what was probably the most factually substantiated (regarding the workings of the EU bureaucratic and political structures) and interesting contribution.

ah, yes, and brian eno spoke before that (after an equally incongruous skype-in from julian assange from london) and compared diem25 charmingly to the way david bowie, and disturbingly, also the way U2, went against the machinery that had made them successful, but was now curtailing and making impossible all they initially cared and stood for. the U2 reference notwithstanding it was one of the more lucid and insightful contributions of the evening.