Sara Blaylock, Parallel Public: Experimental Art in Late East Germany / Kimber Chewning

Else Gabriel in Spitze des Flieshbergs (Top of Meat Mountain) by Micha Brendel, Else Gabriel, Rainer Görß, and Via Lewandowsky. Hochschule für Bildende Künste, Dresden. February 1986. Performance, Photography by Andreas Rost.
Copyright 1986 Andreas Rost.

Sara Blaylock, Parallel Public: Experimental Art in Late East Germany. MIT Press, 2022.

Sara Blaylock’s book, Parallel Public: Experimental Art in Late East Germany opens by describing a spread in an October 1989 issue of Bildende Kunst, East Germany’s leading state-run arts magazine. The feature documents the country’s first and only state-sanctioned performance art festival called the Permanent Art Conference held in June 1989 in East Berlin. The festival’s existence and its documentation within the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) official channels of culture represents a drastic transition in cultural policy, an open acknowledgement of the GDR’s shifting stance toward experimental art. The event is an entry point for Blaylock, who asserts that the promotion and visibility of experimental artforms towards the end of East Germany’s existence were inevitable. She further argues that these experimental practices were less covert than one might assume, and were in fact explicit strategies by artists and art organizers to redefine spaces of public life separate from, or parallel to, official state culture (5). Blaylock utilizes a range of artist-created media and practices, including performance, photography, film, and publications that she argues were used to create an alternative public, one which highlights forms of community and interdisciplinarity that state socialism failed to facilitate (5). While the scope of aesthetic means that Blaylock covers is impressively vast, the book coheres around a consistent attention to the body in performance art and photography that challenged conventional representational practices.

Through a series of seven richly detailed case studies utilizing source materials that include personal interviews, official state and surveillance reports, and artist-made publications, the author brings together myriad aesthetic practices otherwise ephemeral and often marginal into a coherent narrative of collective resistance and political critique under a fraying socialist state. This archival work is supplemented by rich illustrations which include photographs, performance documentation, film stills, and film treatments. As the book progresses, a familiar cast begins to emerge: noteworthy are the organizer Christoph Tannert and artists Cornelia Schleime and Gabrielle Stötzer, who play multiple roles throughout various chapters, and helps to ground the multiplicity of social and aesthetic practices. This throughline gives the text dynamism as well as deepens the shades of Blaylock’s chosen historical actors. By placing these experimental practices at the center of her historiography, Blaylock argues that one is able to better understand the significant role culture played in East Germany’s ultimate downfall. The term “experimental” is addressed at the outset, often murkily utilized within much artistic practice in the Eastern Bloc, not fitting neatly into the divide of unofficial or official culture. Many of these artists were consistently employed by the GDR, and as such their work is less countercultural or dissident and more strategically fluid. Artists were able to draw attention to the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the East German state’s universalized cultural landscape by participating in the duties of public life and critically mimicking the political and cultural contexts of state socialism, creating what Blaylock deems, a parallel public (17).

Blaylock rightly acknowledges that the capitalist west held an equally strict ideological agenda to the communist east, which imposed itself on cultural production. Although scholars have long critiqued and theorized the anti-consumerist aesthetic contributions of the west, experimental artists in the east have yet to be taken as seriously— a condition Blaylock seeks to correct, especially in connection to subject formation (8). The text establishes early on the various social, ideological, and political conditions in which the experimental practices of this study arose and thrived.  While East Germany adopted socialist realism as its official aesthetic, the adoption of this realism was meant to be critical and, while counterintuitive, antinaturalistic. This new socialist realism depicts reality in its development as well as its content. The necessity of a shared utopian vision meant that artists in the GDR were held in high esteem and received more aid from the government than the average citizen. This state-mandated support for artists ironically contributed to the successes of experimental art in East Germany, as they adeptly navigated the GDR cultural system, benefitting from its support, while also asserting a form of creative autonomy. The artists at the center of Blaylock’s study were importantly “born under socialism,” and through a succession of political leadership and the punishment of progressive communist artists, had largely given up hope in the political idealism of socialism. These conditions created a unique set of circumstances in which these artists were less overtly critical of state politics, focusing more on localized forms of political representation.

Perhaps nothing looms larger in the global imaginary of East Germany than the Ministry for State Security (Stasi). However, scholars have questioned the extent of the Stasi’s centrality and power within East German historiography. The relationship between a socialist state and a socialist citizen, as Blaylock reiterates, is a dynamic one. While surveillance was extremely pervasive, what the Stasi were actually able to achieve is a different question (27).  Chapter one examines Stasi-inspired artworks by Verena Kyselka, Christine Schlegel, Cornelia Schleime, Else Gabriel, and Gabriele Stötzer.

Cornelia Schleime, Bis auf weitere gute Zusammenarbeit, Nr. 7284/85 (Until Further Useful Collaboration, Nr. 7284/85), 1993. Copyright Cornelia Schleime.

These five artists requested access to their Stasi files, and then used excerpts from them, recontextualizing and performing their surveilled selves to expose the GDR’s dysfunctionality. Many of the works highlight East Germany’s underestimation of women artists. Schleime and Gabriel, for example, reproduce and emphasize text in their files that solely detail appearance, moments where the spies focused on immaterial qualities before the artists’ actual activities, no matter how significant the women were to any kind of experimental practice. Through their Stasi files, many of the artists were confronted with the fact that close friends and loved ones were the ones to surveil and report on them. Schleime’s relationship with the poet and infamous unofficial collaborator, Sascha Anderson, for example, becomes a source of personal introspection for the artist. While the secret police may have observed and recorded their daily lives, they did not actually hinder the artists’ activities, and from these artworks, a kind of autonomy emerges even under an extremely surveilled state. Despite the oppressive constraints of a high functioning security state, the history of East Germany’s experimental artists is one of creative self-determination (52).

Chapter two focuses on the self-portraits of Thomas Florschuetz and the performances of the Auto-Perforation Artists as corporeal expressions of self-alienation under the GDR’s prosperity. The Auto-Perforation Artists are among the more conspicuous performance artists on the East German experimental scene. Consisting of Micha Brendel, Else Gabriel, Rainer Görß, and Via Lewandowsky, the group cohered around what Blaylock calls “a shared aesthetic of self-harm (66).” This aesthetic was utilized to degrade the GDR’s image of social reality, communing around the abandonment of the ideal socialist citizen. The appearance of a successful and functioning state socialism became more important than the reality of one, allowing for moments of disruption and creative autonomy within official channels of culture that could still be corralled into mandatory quotas that proved the socialist state’s success. Despite the artists’ extreme, abject, and often personally painful performances, the artists were able to benefit from their status as students at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts due to constraints placed on the academic system in East Germany. Thus, the Auto-Perforation Artists were able to graduate, even as they broke with disciplinary boundaries, because the university felt pressure to graduate a high number of students. This is one of many ironies in GDR infrastructure highlighted throughout the book. Through the work of Florschuetz and the Auto-Perforation Artists, Blaylock astutely captures the feelings of frustration and disaffection grabbing hold of the East German public by the end of the 1980s.

Chapter three continues the critical look at the GDR’s social makeup through a study of the disruptions to the socialist body by paying attention to the everyday East German citizen during East Germany’s decline. Gundula Schulze Eldowy and Cornelia Schleime use photography and film, respectively, to underscore the discrepancies between the ambitions and reality of life under state socialism. Both artists deal with the collapse of public and private life promised by socialism as they situate their practice between the traditional divisions of private and public space. They document the lives of people that do not fit neatly into the GDR’s ideal body politic, by capturing images of neighbors, laborers, and punks in order to show a citizenry that resists that dutiful and compliant ideal. Gundula Schulze Eldowy’s portraits of an elderly woman, Tammerlan, and a laborer whose face is covered in soot are particularly poignant.

Chapters four and five articulate the role of multimedia practices in establishing communion within and between experimental scenes in East Germany. Chapter four focuses on the experimental filmmaker Gino Hahnemann, whose films sought to normalize homosexuality, the GDR’s least accepted social group. Hahnemann was at the center of a small gay scene and his work bore witness to a shared space not generally acknowledged or seen in both conventional and experimental spaces. Hahnemann’s super-8 films were kaleidoscopic in their attentions, creating a filmic architecture that incorporates German historical references, gay identity, and local placemaking into their structure.

Gino Hahnemann, Production Still. Harte Romanzen (Hard Romance), 1984. Super-8 film. Reprinted by with Permission of Matthias Fischer. Copyright 2020.

A deeply professional filmmaker, Hahnemann created an expansive body of work completely independent from official realms of culture and, as Blaylock asserts, was widely underappreciated by a wider public, then and now (31). Towards the end of the chapter, Blaylock addresses the material conditions of East German film culture, which has historically limited this visibility. Not easily accessible, much analogue film from the time has been lost, ill-preserved, or housed within private archives. The precarity of any physical remnants, especially within film, of East German experimental culture has privileged the researcher as a primary intermediary between these forms of media and the public today. Blaylock resumes her interrogation into forms of ephemeral cultural production and their historical legacies in chapter five which traces the 1985 Intermedia I festival at the Cultural State Center in Dresden. Intermedia’s organizers Christoph Tannert and Micha Kapinos acknowledged that multimedia practices were a primary means of mass gathering, and forging tangible links between different art forms, such as music and art, were important to its organizers. This interdisciplinary ethos, Blaylock maintains, is part of a longer tradition in the GDR. While experimental programming may have been embraced, the Intermedia Festival was met with a harsh and abnormally punitive reaction by state authority that included the firing and arrest of participants and the migration of artists to the west.

As East Germany continued to deteriorate during its final decade, the role of assembly found new meanings, from finding solidarity, to open resistance, to global connections. This is the focus of Parallel Public’s final two chapters. Chapter six examines collaborative work made by Künstlerinnengruppe Exterra XX (Women Artists Group) based in Erfurt. The forming of the Women Artists Group led to one of the most significant political actions by East German artists: the storming of the Stasi Headquarters in Erfurt in 1989. The group’s figurehead Gabriele Stötzer, a recurrent figure in the book, proves to be one of the most dynamic practitioners traced by Blaylock. A former political prisoner and suspicious of surveillance, the artist generally avoided the private sphere, embracing public spaces. The group created a means of public togetherness, providing Stötzer a sense of safety, even while she was a consistent target of the Stasi. Her commitment to advancing female solidarity can be largely attributed to the group’s success. Chapter seven focuses on the Leipzig-based publication Anschlag and gallery EIGEN-Art, which share the desire to reach beyond the boundaries of the GDR into a critical global network. Writers and artists contributed to both organizations, with the gallery physically housing the publication’s editorial meetings.  The relationship between the two entities is foregrounded by a special issue of the publication that focused on EIGEN+ART. The product, which was Anschlag’s largest print-run, is a candid debate about the gallery’s status, at turns encouraging and critical. An issue organizer felt its open criticality signaled democratic expression not possible in the GDR (244).

Blaylock concludes by addressing a unique set of problems with writing about East German art, namely that East Germany no longer exists. The artists, collaborations and products discussed throughout Parallel Public are all a product of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). This defining attachment affects personal and historical conditions today as many artists disassociate themselves from East German identity. While these issues have no easy conclusions, Blaylock demonstrates how essential contextualization and a commitment to reading visual culture are in gesturing towards the realities of those at the edges of cultural legibility.

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