Invisible Histories, the Grieving Work of Communism, and the Body as Disruption. A Talk about Art and Politics.
[originally published in: Leonardo Electronic Almanac. Red Art Volume 20 No 1 (http://www.leoalmanac.org/vol-20-no-1-red-art/) and: Aceti, Dr Lanfranco, Julian Stallabrass, Susanne Jaschko, Bill Balaskas. Red Art: New Utopias in Data Capitalism: Leonardo Electronic Almanac, Vol. 20, No. 1. Edition: 1. Goldsmiths, University of London]
KEYWORDS: communism, state-socialism, post-communism, revolution, memory politics, documentary art, political/activist art, body art
This text is based on a conversation held in December 2012 between myself and Åsa Sonjasdotter, visual artist and professor at Tromsø Academy of Fine Arts. We discuss my artistic research into the history of the revolutions of 1989 and of state-socialism in general – which is driven by my biographical investment in these histories – in relation to broader questions regarding the relationship between art and politics, and consider what the notion of political struggle might mean in a post-communist world. Finally, we talk about the role of the body, of physical experience, in remembering past political events and in opening them to the present day – through different artistic strategies.
E: My art making and research follows on from a need to revisit my own history. Living through and partaking in the period of revolutionary openness between October 1989 and March 1990 in East Germany, at the age of 15, was the politically formative experience of my life. I experienced the subsequent accession of East Germany to the Federal Republic of Germany as the end of a unique collective experience lasting only a few months. It is in relation to the utopian horizon of this experience, that my work has unfolded over the past years.
Initially, my research was driven by the sheer invisibility of these utopian aspects of 1989 in historiography. Neither the happy story of national re-unification, nor that of the vindication of true freedom in the form of West German representative democracy ring true with how I perceived this period. I knew that I was not alone in feeling this way; when talking to others who lived through these events, I saw their faces light up and their bodies tingle with excitement at the memory. But this excitement almost always came with an immediate apology, a disclaimer, saying that ‘we’ were naïve and that ‘it’ could have never worked out. This ‘it’ only ever got expressed as what it was not and how it could not have become, because of ‘reality’ or political circumstances. So, I became very interested in what this shared ‘it’ is, that people refer to, but can never quite put into words. There was this parallel motion of trying to find something, and almost prove something that is not present in official history – in a sense, to create a counter-history – and at the same time realizing, in talking to people, but also in looking at different types of documentation, that this ‘it’ is never quite there, cannot be communicated and may, in fact, not be communicable within the languages available to us.
A: To revisit this ‘it’ is to revisit a moment where things were open and possible, and I wonder if this is a strategy, to revisit this moment and to insist on it, to open up these questions again, to not accept that they are now closed forever? This is how I understand what you have said.
E: For sure, this was my intention with this work from the start, to re-open an experience and go against the claims that this revolution is closed, that its demands were redeemed. To insist instead, that there were a lot of things that happened at this moment and that were foreclosed by history, but that are, at the same time, not fully contained in historiography, but persists as a hope or desire or potentiality. And you get a sense of these things, when you look at how people respond to certain materials that I have shown from this period.
The first work I did on this theme was based on archival footage from the Robert-Havemann-Archiv in Berlin, where they have full documentation of the meetings of the so-called Central Round Table of the GDR. The Round Tables were an institution that sprung up everywhere, not only in Berlin, after the government lost its legitimacy in the autumn of 1989. They decided in November to start using this format, which came from Poland initially, as a mediation platform, where oppositional forces and members of the government could meet. Round Tables were set up in schools, universities, town halls and regional governments. The Central Round Table in Berlin, which was on the level of the national government, started on the 7th of December 1989. It essentially had a quasi-government function at the time, but was not based on representation. It is extremely fascinating, as it brings up all sorts of interesting issues to do with what happens when revolution starts to self-institutionalize. And this was the moment that I was interested in, to see what happens when revolution tries to install itself as permanent change, as institution.
I worked with a ten minute clip from the very first session of the Round Table that I had found looking through the transcripts, or rather the index/content pages of the transcripts for that day, where it said: “Demonstration passes the building.” I immediately became interested in that, because in this instance you have the ‘street,’ the liminal space of revolution, clashing with this formal institution that is coming together for the first time. And this confrontation of the two is what makes the clip extremely interesting. You see people sitting in this space, which was a church assembly hall, and they have only been there for an hour or so, for the first time. Then you hear these sounds of whistling and shouting from the outside, and you have this sudden intensity and drama, because people do not know how to relate to this. Some people think the demonstration is there to support the Round Table, some perceive it as a threat, and everybody thinks they have to legitimize themselves in the face of this demand from the street. Because, in fact, the ‘street’ was the sovereign at that time. So you have this brief moment, where the question of legitimacy is called up, and the question of action, because they are supposed to respond, but they do not manage. For ten minutes they talk about what can we do, who can we send out there, how can we represent the table out there, who will the people going out there represent, etc. – essentially going through the very basic vocabulary of politics.
This was the first piece of footage that I began working with and that I actually continue working with today.
In the first installation piece I made based on this, I had the video clip playing on a screen set into the surface of a table I built, next to a small frame with what was essentially the outcome of the Round Table meetings, namely a draft for a new East German constitution. To write this draft was one of the main tasks of the Round Table during its three months of existence. But in the course of these three months, the political situation had changed so dramatically, that by the time the draft was completed, it was already obsolete. The draft was produced by all political forces across society, the former socialist party, reform socialists, greens, citizens-rights people, social democrats, anarchists, women’s groups etc., i.e. including people that you would not normally get in a ‘government’. And together, in an extremely speeded-up process, they wrote a document that responded very concretely to how the project of state-socialism failed in East Germany. You could say that it amounted to a kind of implicit history of state-socialism, in the sense that it included very precise regulations regarding those points where this project was felt to have failed most specifically. But it is interesting also for its limitations; it is not a revolutionary manifesto or utopian document by any means, because of the unusual and wide-ranging group of people that worked on it not by majority vote, but solely on a consensus principle. This document was commissioned in December 1989, because the assumption was, that East Germany would continue to exist as a separate democratic, but not necessarily capitalist state. The revolutionaries at the Round Table were not in favor of reunification at that time, in fact, by and large it was not an issue in those early months. When the revolution started, it was about reforming socialism. But when the document was completed by March, it was already clear that things would no longer go that way. The use of the document in parliament was then openly sabotaged; it immediately became a subversive document. It also immediately became, and still is, extremely obscure.
In my installation, I was interested in the communication between the video clip and the constitution document. I showed this work at the Geschichtsforum in May 2009 in Berlin, which was the biggest cultural event in the context of the 20-year anniversary of the revolution, initiated by the German Cultural Foundation. And then I showed it again, in a different context, in Halle, my home town, in the actual building where the local Round Table took place and which is now owned by an art association, who put on a show there in October 2009 together with institutions that are invested in memory politics in Halle, but from a very official point of view.
I later expanded this work for an exhibition in the context of the Former West project at BAK in Utrecht in 2010. Here, I condensed the table into a smaller installation, with the video on a screen by the entrance of the room with my work. The original sound was on headphones, but the sound you heard when you approached the room, was the sound of the demonstration, the outside sound, the iconic sound of protest/revolution. So the inside/outside idea was there, but it was very condensed and that was the intro to the whole room. The room itself contained three parts: first, there was a table with a projection of me reading the Constitution booklet silently, but in real time from front to back. Effectively, visitors could read it along with me watching the video, although it still remained a solitary act of me reading this document. The other part was an interview I did with a guy who was at the Round Table, involved in the writing of the draft, but also in its printing, which was done by a very small oppositional publishing house in collaboration with the East German official state press. And next to the interview with the story of how it was published and distributed, I showed an image of the box in the storeroom of the publishing house today, that contains the last remaining 20 copies of the document. On the third wall was a video of the very last session of the Round Table, where representatives of the main political groupings take turns reading the constitution draft, already knowing that it will not be used.
A: I think this series of work relates to something I am very interested in, namely what art is, and can do, in relation to politics. In the first works you re-actualize the ‘it’ situation anew by directly presenting the constitution in the places where it was at stake, which are not art-contexts, whereas in the last installation, which is presented in an art-context, you develop a more complex reading of the situation. It seems to me as if these different kinds of locations, representing politics versus art, carry different possibilities for reworking the ‘it’ moment.
E: Initially, I placed this material in an art context in order to see how it could be read outside of the narratives in which it has been encapsulated over the last 20 years. But I think, what I am moving towards in my work now is not to rely entirely on this kind of transfer from the space of historiography or document to the space of art, but to see how and by what other means such a transfer can be achieved, in order to bring this material closer to the ‘it’ that I am searching for. And I am finding that this ‘it’ is less accessible in purely documentary material, but begins to come into view, if you introduce different forms of, let us call it, artistic authorship – if that is the right word.
A: Yes, the second presentation of your work has more layers of complexity, also because you include yourself in it. It is about you reading the material, and you add that to the other perspectives of the film clip, the inside and outside, and the perspective of the person who was involved in the printing and writing of the constitution. You introduce the layer of the now and what it means for you to read this text now. The complexity of the relations contains so much, that the place where it is shown is less important than your ‘authorship.’
E: Yes, although the installations in Berlin and Halle also importantly functioned as interventions in specific constellations of memory politics, which by and large followed the established narratives of this history.
A: And then to place it in these situations as an intervention can be very powerful.
E: Yes, the placing was important. And I think the question is also what your main impulse in doing this is. This is something I am still working out, but back then I wanted it to be very immediate, a very direct intervention in the commemorative events that were going on in 2009, an almost activist, direct idea of what art can do, of how it can take effect. I came from this very literal concept of political or documentary art – the idea of showing something that is not otherwise visible and achieving something just by doing that. But I think art can also function in a different way, as you mentioned, in creating an openness that is somehow closely related to the openness of the revolutionary moment itself. And this openness can in some ways be an almost anti-activist space, because activism suggests a clear instruction or message coming with the work, and my earlier works had an element of this immediacy. Now, I am increasingly also interested in how art creates a sense of openness or disruption in the ways of speaking about politics or about history, in a way that does not follow a counter-documentary impulse of saying ‘this is how it was.’ How art can open an experience up again, without necessarily immediately putting a label on it. I guess, this will be easier to explain when we talk about my more recent works. But it is great that we already have this framework for talking about my work, the different ways art can be political, or interact with an audience, or have an impact.
My next larger project was Watchtower/Ghosts, which I conducted over four months in the summer of 2010 in a former East German border watchtower in Berlin. I used the tower as a kind of open studio, making my research available there, but also inviting different protagonists from 1989 for a series of talks that touched on different aspects of this history. In terms of our discussion of how art can be political, I guess, this was partly research for me and for my own purposes, but it was also very much about creating a sense that there is an experience that is shared, rather than individual, and to see what happens, if you bring together people whose past experience has been muted and individualized to such a shocking degree.
A: This somehow also makes me think of Adorno and Horkheimer, and what they wrote about how to recover Marxism, which they found had either been hijacked by the Stalinists or domesticated within Social Democracy. So, I am thinking of the work they did in using cultural criticism as a way to reflect on their own failures. This might be an interesting parallel.
E: Yes, and in my work this kind of critical reflection is, in fact, addressed to two different audiences or groups: Firstly, there is an ephemeral or, if you will, non-community that I attempt to create around my work by calling on those who shared this experience, and the experience of its invisibility. In this sense, my interventions in Halle and Berlin were also always investigations of how this experience can call upon such an audience and address it specifically as a ‘community’ vis à vis a particular experience, rather than as isolated individuals. The same goes even for a more recent work which I did in public space, in the streets of a Leipzig neighborhood, in 2012, where I worked with magazine covers and texts from the period, and which, again, communicates a political excitement and a horizon that differs widely and goes far beyond what the revolution is held to have ‘achieved’ officially.
Secondly, also to move on to a different strand of my research, my work is addressed to the Western dominated present-day leftwing, of which I am also very much a part. I feel that I can bring a different kind of critical perspective to this project – that of the experience of real existing socialism. To remind us, that this idea of communism, which has such currency again today, was actually supposedly implemented, or at least in the process of being implemented, in this whole part of the word. To look at the particularities of how this project failed concretely, without cynicism, but also without self-censorship, and to follow the need for some kind of grieving work about this. To look at all that could have been, and how it was thwarted again and again by concrete acts. So, a starting point was to look at communist iconographies and the different desires they evoke in people from the Western and, on the other hand, the Eastern European left. A first project, which I started at a residency in Canada, came out of a conversation I had there with a very well-known American Marxist philosopher, who was there as a tutor. When I told him about my work, he said, this is all very interesting, but to me as a Marxist, the history of state-socialism is not relevant. And this was not the first time that I have heard that from high-profile leftwing Western academics.
A: That seems like an extremely lazy position. If you want to talk about Marxism you have to think about what happened in state-socialism. This is again why I think Adorno and Horkheimer are so relevant in how they consider theirs as well as other’s failures.
E: Yes, and this is, once again, a very clear and immediate political impulse to doing what I do. In response to this conversation in Canada, I started looking on eBay and researching for East German produced red flags and made a series of prints of those images, exactly as they were posted on eBay, with a small text plate next to them that states where and when they were purchased, alongside the name of the East German factory where they were produced.
I continued with this theme at a residency in Berlin Pankow, in a building that used to be a home of the FDJ, the communist youth organization of East Germany. In fact, the whole surrounding area is interesting – it was known as the home of the party and cultural elites in the early days after the founding of the state. Many politicians had their homes there, the embassies were there, there was a street where all the writers and artists returning from exile after the war were housed, Eisler, Becher, etc. And a former Prussian palace there became the seat of the first prime minister and later the official guesthouse of the East German government.
The project I did here was a bit of a follow-on from the Red Flag project, because I had bought this red flag fabric and was thinking about working with this material. I had come across a piece by the artist Felix Gmelin, where he re-enacts a film by Gerd Conrad from 1968. Conrad had some students relay-run through West-Berlin with a red flag, and Gmelin re-staged this in Stockholm in 2002. I decided not to restage it for the third time, but to use the same camera perspective going through some streets of Pankow, with basically an empty space in the middle, where the relay runners are in the original video. The voice-over is going through what these places were and what their role in the architecture of the East German state was, to give an idea of an actual state apparatus, a power apparatus, being in place, that is supposed to be the implementation of the communist project. On the other monitor you see me stitching up one of the pieces of red fabric to make it into a flag and put it on a handle. The third component I included was a Mayakovsky poem – for the simple reason that the main street that people associate with this area is Mayakovsky Street. And, of course, Mayakovsky was the most prominent poet of the early Soviet Union until he committed suicide in 1930, which was very much hushed up. There is this one poem from 1929 where you can get this implicit, but still very present sense of his disillusionment with the project of the revolution. This is another entry point into the tragedy of the failure of this great project, through one of its early protagonists, who sees his life-project fail and kills himself.
So essentially, the second strand of my work deals with this, a kind of grief work around the project of state-socialism, but a form of grieving and dissecting that nonetheless insists on the validity of a political project that aims beyond the status quo.
My next project after these two was the video Je ne rentrerai pas, which goes back to my research on 1989 and revolution, and the question of what other ways, beyond narrative or documentation, you have as an artist of engaging with such an experience. I decided to go back to a film that I saw a few years ago at a film festival in Oslo, the French militant film La Reprise de Travaille aux Usine Wonder, which was made by Jacques Willemont in 1968. It is a ten-minute clip of the end of a strike, where one of the striking women is standing outside the gates of a factory refusing to go back inside. When I first saw this in Oslo, it was not even subtitled, so I just knew the situation, and I saw her face and her body language, and I was completely blown away by it. It was the most powerful image for my experience of 1989 that I had ever come across – much more so than any documentary material I had seen from the period itself. So this clip had been in my head for a long time, I had written a short text about my encounter with it, and I decided to go back to it, and intervene in the footage directly, based on this earlier text. What I was interested in, was to use this to look into the non-verbal, almost gestural level of this type of experience – in this film, but also in much of my material from 1989. To work with the fact that the intensity of this kind of moment is not in the language, but in the non-verbal, the physical.
In the film, I go through different motions of engaging with the material and confronting it with my own experience of 1989. I took only three minutes from the original film and I go through it in different loops around the moment where she screams: “I am not going back inside, I am not going back into that pigsty of yours” in French. Which is the only text from the film that is translated, the rest is in French. I even worked on the sound a bit to make it harder to understand, even if you do speak French, just to recreate my experience with the film of not understanding the words. The three-minute clip is basically of her shouting, while the two union officials try to calm her down, and this clip gets repeated in different ways. First of all, there is the level of what she does and how she goes through this set of gestures, which one could maybe describe as an affective cycle from being resigned and depressed, listening to the officials and almost giving up, but still with a sense of defiance, and then erupting again with rage. In the original footage you have about five full cycles of this motion, of which I picked one. From almost giving in, listening to ‘reason,’ to flaring up again with rage, insisting again, that you cannot go back inside. In two of the cycles of this full set of motions I use very minimal text. One cycle shows her cut out in front of a white background, and on the second screen I show quotes from a documentary that was made by Hervé Le Roux in the 90ies, using a few statements from his interviews with her former colleagues, where they all say how much they empathized with her and felt the same way. The second cycle is of her being cut out of the image and the two men talking to her empty silhouette from both sides, where I used quotes from a translation of what they were saying, all the reasons for why she should be content with the small changes that the strike has achieved, and go back inside, and not be upset. And you have this minimal text alongside her going through this cycle of gestures, of her rearing up and calming down. From that I wanted to do something that continues this physical process as a space of resistance into the present. To work on this space as anchored in the body, to enact it through my bodily recognition of her refusal and her rage. So, I experimented with a few gestures that repeat, recreate this space in the body, gesturally.
I have been reading a lot about gesture, and on performance and body art, and I am becoming extremely interested in the idea of the body as an outside to language, and therefore as a possible site of disruption. I think there is something important in this for understanding revolution, or ‘the Political’ in more general terms, especially if you look at how the recent uprisings in Cairo, or the Occupy movement have been so much about the physical formation and sustenance of a community of bodies in space. I think it is important to insist on this physical level of the Political, especially because the body has been neglected to such a degree by post-structuralist theory, and the suspicion this has caused, also in the field of art, towards using the body, because of the claims of authenticity and the essentialist overtones of a certain type of body art.
In order to get a better understanding of this, I have started looking at more contemporary material, from 2011, and at how these events were constituted above all by such physical acts as camping, sleeping and eating together in space. I am collecting images of those activities from different protest sites and planning to develop some performative, maybe choreographic work around those. Right now I am working on a script for a performance based on the note that was put up around Zuccotti Park on November 15th 2011 to end the protests there. This notice goes through a list of activities that are being prohibited, and it is extremely specific about which bodily position you are allowed, or not allowed to assume in the square, in terms of lying, or reclining, or sitting down. So these restrictions concern very basic physical positions, and not political actions in the classical sense of giving speeches or holding up banners.
I am also working on some material I shot in Cairo last year in February with a friend of mine from there, where we drove around Tahrir Square one night in her car in three circles, while talking about revolution. This gesture in some ways marks the endpoint of a revolution, or maybe not actual endpoint, but point of disillusionment after revolution, but at the same time it performs this moment of potential closure and disillusionment also as a physical gesture of persistence, by going round the square physically, several times.
A: I really find it interesting that you, through this whole process, arrive at the body and the non-verbal. I share your analysis that so much of what is at stake concerns the subjugation of the physical body, and it tells something about the urgency of the situation, where much else is already lost. The name Occupy also shows that this is the strategy, to go out in the streets and insist with your physical body by not leaving the place.
E: Absolutely, and the next thing I want to do is bring my investigations of the physical in these more recent situations back into my work on the past, and how it relates to this deep sense, that something of my experience of 1989, and therefore of the experience of revolution in general, persists in the body as potentiality, even after revolution becomes closed down in language, re-institutionalization and historiography. I think, this work is so pressing, because within a classical concept of emancipation as linear progress, all of these revolutions, the one in 1989, the one in Cairo, even the events of 1968, must be considered as failed, at least in terms of the ambitions of their original protagonists. I am interested instead, in a notion of the Political that is not linear, that unfolds on this juncture between order and the opening/rupture of this order. And then to ask how art can contribute to creating such instances of rupture or openness, also by working directly on bodies and on embodied memory of a past political experience. To create experiences of entering such an outside, and to see if and what shifts can occur in this back and forth between outside and status quo. And this, of course, proposed a particular relationship between art and politics that I want to understand better and continue to experiment with.