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.

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.

Postost Zine

Am 24.9.2020 hatte das Tanzprojekt PostOst  in den Berliner Sopiensälen Premiere. Ich habe für das Projekt, gemeinsam mit allen Mitwirkenden Anna Hentschel, Zwoisy Mears-Clarke, Pham Minh Duc, Rike Flämig, Claudia Graue, Yvonne Sembene, Emese Csornai, Martyna Poznańska, Josefine Mühle, Maria Rößler und Elena Polzer ein das Stück begleitendes Zine zusammengestellt, das von Kerem Jehuda Halbrecht gestaltet wurde. Dank an Noa Winter und Melmun Barjachuu für ihre diskriminierungsensible Beratung. Das komplette Zine steht HIER zum Download zur Verfügung. Meine Einführung, eine kurze Intro zu Erfahrungen und Forderungen von Frauen in der Revolution von 1989/90 folgt hier:

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POSTOST ist ein Zeitenmixer.

POSTOST lässt uns von 2020 in die ferne Zukunft des Jahres 2090 schauen und von 2020 zurück auf das Jahr 1990. Es lässt uns aber auch aus dem Jahr 1990 auf das Jahr 2020 blicken, auf die Welt zum Zeitpunkt des Entstehens dieses Heftes.

In diesem Heft reagieren die Projektbeteiligten von POSTOST auf je ein Dokument zu Erfahrungen und Forderungen von Frauen[1] in der DDR und aus der Zeit des Umbruchs ab 1987. Ein Ausgangspunkt des Projektes und vieler Beiträge des Zines ist ein Stapel Forderungspapiere von Frauengruppen und Aktivistinnen, entstanden in den Monaten um die Zeitenwende 1989/90. Auch diese Papiere richten sich an eine unmittelbare Vergangenheit und eine sich rasch wandelnde Zukunft.

Frauengruppen hatten sich in der DDR erst wenige Jahre zuvor sowohl in kirchlich-oppositionellen als auch in akademischen und SED-kritischen Kreisen gebildet. Die Frauen für den Frieden z.B. gründeten sich 1982, um sich im Zuge der drohenden Ausweitung der Wehrpflicht auf Frauen gegen die zunehmende Militarisierung des Staates stark zu machen. Andere Gruppen beschäftigten sich, meist unter dem Dach der Kirche, mit feministischer Theologie und Theorie. Ab 1982 entwickelten erste Lesbengruppen, z.B. in der Berliner Gethsemane-Gemeinde, Praktiken der Selbstermächtigung, des Austauschs und der gegenseitigen Unterstützung.

1989 begann mit dem Aufbrechen der verkrusteten Strukturen und der Auflösung des Repressionsapparates der von den Bürgerbewegungen auf den Weg gebrachte Dialog zwischen Staat und Bevölkerung; Formen des Miteinander-Sprechens über alle Belange der sich neu formierenden Gesellschaft explodierten. Frauen begann sich zu organisieren, gründeten landesweit eine Vielzahl neuer Gruppen, die sich ab dem 3. Dezember 1989 im Unabhängigen Frauenverband (UFV) zusammenschlossen, um ihre Forderungen und Vorstellungen besser in den gesellschaftlichen Gestaltungsprozess einbringen zu können. Wenige Tage später, am 7.12.1989, erkämpften sie sich ihren Platz am Zentralen Runden Tisch der DDR, einem Forum der Vermittlung und Entscheidungsfindung zwischen Opposition und Regierung, wo sie u.a. an einem neuem Verfassungsentwurf mitwirkten.

Frauen und Frauengruppen spielten in den wichtigen Foren und Ereignissen der Umbruchszeit oft eine zentrale Rolle. So wurde z.B. die erste Besetzung einer Stasi-Zentrale in Erfurt am 4. Dezember 1989 von einer Gruppe von Frauen um die Künstlerin Gabriele Stötzer in die Wege geleitet.

Das Manifest „Ohne Frauen ist kein Staat zu machen. Einige Frauen-Fragen an ein alternatives Gesellschaftskonzept oder: Manifest für eine autonome Frauenbewegung“ wurde von Ina Merkel (lila offensive) beim UFV-Gründungskongress veröffentlicht. Es behauptete eine Spezifik der Erfahrung von Frauen in einem Staat, in dem eine von oben herzustellende Geschlechtergleichheit offizieller emanzipatorischer Anspruch und Grundlage auf Gleichstellung zielender Sozialpolitiken war. Diese staatliche Behauptung von Gleichheit überdeckte in der DDR aber zugleich die Unzulänglichkeiten dieser Politiken in einem ungebrochen patriarchalen System – und machte diese Widersprüche unadressierbar.

Die Forderungen der Frauen richteten sich 1989/90 aber nicht nur gegen die Versäumnisse und den patriarchalen Duktus des sich auflösenden, vergangenen Staates. „Staat machen“ hieß hier vor allem, die Rolle und Stellung von Frauen in einer gemeinsam entworfenen kommenden Gesellschaft ebenfalls gänzlich neu zu denken.

Die erste DDR-weite Lesbentagung am 25.11. 1989 fiel – lange vorher geplant – eher zufällig ebenfalls in genau diese Aufbruchsmonate. Die Fragen auf dem Einladungsschreiben – Wer sind wir? Wie leben wir? Wovon träumen wir? – stellten sich plötzlich auf radikale Weise im Bezug auf alle Aspekte des eigenen und kollektiven (lesbischen) Lebens. In Arbeitsgruppen wurden Erfahrungen, z.B. als lesbische Mütter oder als Lesben mit Behinderung erstmals öffentlich besprochen[2].

Doch bevor sich all diese Fragen gemeinsam in der radikalen Offenheit des revolutionären Augenblicks besprechen ließen, rasten die Zeiten schon weiter, in eine Richtung, die von vielen der aktiven Frauen weder vorhergesehen noch gewollt war. Das Reformprojekt einer demokratischeren, gerechteren, demilitarisierten und feministischeren Gesellschaft geriet gegenüber dem nun auch von westdeutschen etablierten Kräften vorangetriebenen Projekt einer raschen deutschen Einheit – die das westliche Gefüge von Demokratie, Wirtschaft und Geschlechterrollen unangetastet lassen sollte – ins Hintertreffen. Gruppen wie SoFIA (Sozialistische Fraueninitiative AusländerInnen) warnten früh vor den Folgen des wachsenden Nationalismus und Rassismus. Ostdeutsche schwarze und Frauen of Colour engagierten sich in vielen dieser Initiativen und machten hier eigene Erfahrungen, leider auch der erneuten Ausgrenzung und Diskriminierung. In Dresden lud die im Neuen Forum aktive Ina Röder Sissoko Anfang 1991 schwarze Frauen und Mädchen erstmals zu einem Austausch zu diesen Fragen[3]. Organisierungen wie diese begannen in den frühen 1990ern auch andernorts unter dem Druck der zahlreichen Übergriffe bis hin zu Pogromen gegen – meist vermeintliche – Ausländer*innen[4]. Das Fenster der Möglichkeiten eine solidarische, ökologische, feministische, nicht- oder antinationalistische Gesellschaft neu zu denken hatte sich da bereits geschlossen.

Die Forderungspapiere der Frauen, die in den eiligen Wintermonaten 1990 entstanden waren und von der Archivarin und Protagonistin Samirah Kenawi gesammelt wurden, sind Kartierungen sich stetig wandelnder Zukünfte, deren Gestaltungsmöglichkeiten den Aktivist*innen bereits wieder entglitten.

Die am Zentralen Runden Tisch von Mitgliedern des UFV entwickelte Sozialcharta navigiert diesen Zeitraum. Sie liest sich als eine Reaktion auf die Erfahrungen von Frauen in der DDR und gleichzeitig – und vor allem – als Dokument ihrer Befürchtungen und Erwartungen in Bezug auf die kommende Einheit. Mit dem Papier, das als Grundlage der Aushandlung neuer sozialer Strukturen in einem neuen Gesamtdeutschland verstanden werden kann, wollten die Verfasser*innen einerseits jene Formen der Gleichstellung sichern, welche die DDR dem Westen voraushatte, und andererseits die befürchtete soziale, ökonomische, rechtliche Abwertung von Frauen im neuen System verhindern. Aus dieser Charta konnte im Einigungsprozess lediglich – und auch das nur unter dem Druck von ost- wie westdeutschen Frauen – das liberalere Abtreibungsrecht[5] der DDR in das vereinigte Deutschland gerettet werden. Darüber hinaus ist die Zukunft, welche die Frauen in den Papieren entwerfen, nicht eingetroffen. Ihre Ideen und ihre Namen sind heute kaum im öffentlichen Bewusstsein. Was könnte es heißen, diese Ideen heute als Forderungen und Visionen neu ins Spiel zu bringen? Welche Zukünfte laden uns heute, 2020, ein zu imaginieren? Wie ließen sich diese historischen und hochaktuellen Forderungen mit gegenwärtigen queerfeministischen, intersektionalen, ökologischen Feminismen aufmischen, updaten, neu mischen?

Elske Rosenfeld, September 2020

[1] Wir verwenden in diesem Text den im zeitlichen Kontext verwendeten, selbstgewählten und nicht trans-inklusiven, binären Begriff „Frauen“. Einige der damaligen Aktiven identifizieren sich heute nicht mehr als Frauen. Eine Sprache für trans- und nicht-binäre (Selbst)identifizierungen und die damit verbundenen Möglichkeiten stand auch in den oppositionellen Frauen- und Lesbengruppen damals kaum zur Verfügung.

[2] Organisierungen von Menschen mit Behinderung in der DDR sind bislang kaum historisch aufgearbeitet worden; bekannt ist aber z.B. die selbstorganisierte Landkommune um den 2020 verstorbenen Behindertenaktivisten Matthias Vernaldi in Hartroda/Thüringen.

[3] Siehe hierzu das Gespräch zwischen Ina Röder Sissoko und Suza Husse in „Longing is my favorite material for engaging holes“ in Suza Husse, Elske Rosenfeld (Hg.), wildes wiederholen. material von unten. Dissidente Geschichten in DDR und pOstdeutschland #1, 2019

[4] Das Ausstellungsprojekt und Buch Labor 89. Intersektionale Bewegungsgeschichte*n aus West und Ost von Peggy Piesche (Hg.) und Nicola Lauré al-Samarai (Hauptautorin) ist den Erfahrungen und Organisierungen von BIPoC in der DDR und der Transformationszeit gewidmet.

[5] Laut DDR-Recht entschieden Schwangere während der ersten zwölf Wochen einer Schwangerschaft allein, ob sie diese austragen oder abbrechen wollten.

Bini Adamzcak “1917-1989-2019”

In ihrem Videobeitrag zu unserem Panel “Nach dem Protest“ beim Festival “Palast der Republik” im Haus der Berliner Festspiele erinnert Bini Adamzcak – am Tag des Frauen*streiks, 8.März 2019 – an die verlorenen und verschütteten geschlechterpolitischen Vorschläge bzw. Praktiken der Revolutionen 1917 und 1989 und zieht eine historische Linie von einem Moment des Aufeinandertreffens feministischer / frauenbewegter Traditionen Ost-West zu emanzipatorischen Projekten der Gegenwart.

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Text: Bini Adamzcak
Kamera und Schnitt: Kornelia Kugler

Konzipiert für das Panel: “Nach dem Protest. Der Runde Tisch, sein Verfassungsentwurf, deren Werdegang und Aktualität”
mit Almuth Berger, Tatjana Böhm, Susan Buck-Morss, Bernd Gehrke, Max Hertzberg, Bernhard Schlink
Videobeitrag: Bini Adamzcak
Konzept & Moderation: Kerstin Meyer & Elske Rosenfeld