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