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 https://nachwendefallstudien.de/ 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.

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

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

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

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

Translation by Moira Barrett

Harun Farocki’s “Hard Selling” reframed

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

Gabriele Stötzer: The Collective as Liberation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Statement for the Future: Documentation

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

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

Double hommage to Ana M.

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

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

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

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

 

Inviting Utopia, Reading

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

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

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

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

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

“Standing Still”

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

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