Just before leaving Germany in December, I visited the exhibition “Zwischen Aussteig und Aktion” (Between Exit and Action) in the Kunsthalle Erfurt, and I was struck again by this sense of familiarity that I often feel when it comes to the late GDR.
The show is an encyclopedic look at the underground art scene in Erfurt. There was work from the 60s and 70s, but much of it focused on the mid to late 1980s. I’ve seen some of this work before, but never so much in one place. The artworks were also accompanied by private photos and ephemera (posters, flyers, etc.), giving a fuller picture of activities at the time.
Looking at all of these things, I was struck by a sense of identification – this is work that I could have been making, events that my friends could have been organizing, practically at the very same time. I am, though, probably about 5-10 years younger than most of the artists in the Erfurt exhibition, so it may be better to say that these were things that I knew were happening in Toledo, of which I was on the fringes.
From approximately 1987-1991, I was part of the punk scene, which overlapped with a scene associated with the Collingwood Arts Center, a low-cost work/live space for artists. When a writer from the GDR talks about how he and his friends wore Italian army uniforms as a provocation against the militarized society of the GDR, I think of my friends wearing West and East German army coats and combat boots as a provocation of their own. When I see a short, quasi mystical video of women on a rooftop in Erfurt, I think about dressing in a bird mask and running through the snow in Forest Cemetery for my friend Bev’s film. But it’s not only the style of the people or the style of the work that resonates with me, it is also this sense of isolation – only half knowing what is going on beyond your region (GDR artists were likely much better informed than we were) – and the sense of knowing you were, in a way, stuck there: you had to do something where you were because there was no getting out.
This sense of identification breaks down, though, when confronted with the third floor of the exhibition, where a large installation by Gabi Stötzer looks at the surveillance and documentation of the Erfurt scene by the internal security forces of the GDR. No one ever paid that much attention to the goings-on of the underground scene in Toledo. Sure, an all-ages show might be busted occasionally for violating a city code, and an individual might be arrested for underage drinking or drug possession, but the content of what we were doing was never scrutinized, never truly deemed threatening. When my best friend and I danced and pantomimed sex on top of a Betsy Ross American flag while our friends’ band played a song about war for oil, no one was taking photographs that would go into a file. In fact, as far as I know, there was no one taking photographs at all.
It’s hard not to romanticize the danger that artists in the GDR lived under. I want to think that art can be dangerous to the status quo, that it can change the world. But it’s also hard to imagine what form of artistic production couldn’t be quickly assimilated and neutralized by the society in which I live. And I think that even if we couldn’t articulate it at the time, my friends and I felt this already in the 80s in Toledo. It added to our nihilism; just one more thing we did that didn’t really matter.
I was discussing this exhibition and my thoughts about it with a friend, and he brought up the relationship between activism and repression. His example was that queer activists don’t march in Berlin anymore, they go to Budapest. And one can argue that they are more needed in Budapest, but are they not needed in Berlin as well? In places that view themselves as “open societies”, we claim to value and respect diversity and difference, but this often seems to be expressed more through the acknowledgement created by niche-marketing than real political agency.
In the US we don’t have the benefit of regime change to create “critical distance” for examining past governmental policies. If systematic sexual and physical abuse of kids in juvenile detention in the 70s and 80s is revealed, it is explained as isolated cases, or as not knowing better at the time, and not seen as an inevitable outcome of our justice system. If we believe that our system is just, then these kids were there for just reasons, and we somehow see them as less victimized than the teenagers in a GDR Jugendhof. To do otherwise would implicate ourselves, would ask for some sort of action on our part, and what we should or could do about it isn’t very clear.
So perhaps what drives the activists to Budapest and the romanticization of artists in repressive societies is related: what we perceive as the relative clarity of the situation. The “enemy” is clearly defined, and we can say definitively that it is not us. With this comes a clear audience to whom your actions can be addressed – you know who is watching in both the positive and negative sense.
But a closer look, as always, complicates the situation: members of the Erfurt art underground could be both artist and informant, part of the opposition and part of the collaboration. We tend to look at those who collaborated as craven individuals and those who refused to collaborate as heroic, but how can we really understand what forced that decision? It is, perhaps, a disservice to assume that the choice was so clear, a half nostalgic, half self-righteous form of patronization from our privileged perspective.
I try to turn that perspective on myself now, to bring some sort of clarity to a world that seems to swim with nuance. Is there a clear moral choice that I am failing to make? So far there has been nothing to force my decision, and this situation seems unlikely to change. Revelations of NSA spying notwithstanding, I still feel as if no one is watching. If I continue to live as I have, I must also live with the realization that there will likely be no decisive moment, and that I will never have to be either a hero or a villain. I will always be both collaborator and dissident.