Images for a different future: recent projects examine the projected desires of the German Democratic Republic’s lost socialist culture
In around 19,500 images taken between 1967 and 1990, the former East German photographer Reinhard Mende documented a world of socialist commodities. His images show mass-produced consumer products – lamp stands or vacuum cleaners – neatly presented against neutral backdrops. Some, in stark black and white, depict factory production lines, illuminated under neon lights. In others, taken in 1970s colour film, carefully posed employees man kiosks and billboard-size photographs wrap around temporary partition displays providing theatrical backdrops to the products they advertise. Mende’s images also show people producing goods, pointing at products, giving demonstrations, staring at banks of TV monitors, or in one, congregating on the street under a bust of Lenin. The product of almost 25 years of official commissions these images document the International Leipzig Trade Fair and the production of the industrial goods and commodities made in factories of the Volkseigene Betriebe (‘people-owned enterprises’) that were displayed and sold there. One of few freelance photographers in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Mende’s vast archive survived the dissolution of East Germany – something rarely assured as many photographers’ archives were arbitrarily lost, destroyed or fragmented after the fall of the Wall. Stefan Heidenreich has proposed that Mende’s images mirror the historical conditions they depict, amounting to ‘an economy in decay’.1 Yet to suggest so means viewing the GDR and its image-world teleologically, in terms of its always-fated failure and dissolution.
The collaborative curatorial project Double Bound Economies: Reading an East German Photo Archive took Mende’s images as a resource to examine the visual protocols and projected desires of a now lost socialist culture. Undertaken by Doreen Mende (an independent curator and the photographer’s daughter), Estelle Blaschke (a photography historian) and artist Armin Linke, the project was first shown in 2012 at Leipzig’s Centre for Contemporary Art at Halle 14, then in Geneva, and in 2013, in Zurich and Berlin. The group focused on Reinhard Mende’s images of the International Leipzig Trade Fair (around 25% of his vast archive) exactly because the fair was designed to encourage trade between the GDR and the capitalist West. Consequently, the curators proposed that within the images we could locate the double desires, identities and projected fantasies of the Cold War period. The group produced a database of Mende’s photos – digitally scanning thousands of pictures from contact sheets and using specialized software to reorganize and thematically label them.
In this documentation of a socialist world of commodities as well as the projection of a utopian vision of socialist modernism, one can begin to make sense of what Doreen Mende has described as a kind of ‘economic schizophrenia’ – socialism performing as a kind of utopian form of capitalism. The investigation of this ‘double-boundedness’ took the form of interventions in, or responses to, the archive by 29 invited artists and thinkers – acts which themselves proposed potentially endless future reiterations. In the exhibition, works by Bettina Allamoda, Tekle Belete, K.P. Brehmer, Harun Farocki, The Otolith Group, Allan Sekula and Noël Burch, Malte Wandel, Christopher Williams and Linke were displayed alongside Mende’s images. Videos such as Farocki’s 35-minute film Die Führende Rolle (The Leading Role, 1994), were shown on monitors alongside others produced for the exhibition – many shot by Linke – of interviews with figures originally involved in the Leipzig fair, such as Haile Gabriel Dagne, the Ethiopian Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany from 1978–83. These interviews acted as another level of documentation and production, a kind of ‘para’ audio archive. In the accompanying catalogue and on the website these voices were accompanied by curators, historians and theorists – including Mark Fisher, Kerstin Stakemeier and Thomas Weski – who were also put into dialogue with the archive, selecting their own groupings of images. Alongside this, an education project involving a year-long seminar at the University of Design Karlsruhe, intervening in and reworking the archive, resulted in a student-produced book.
In Double Bound Economies Mende’s photographs were made to exceed their status as historical documents or objects of aesthetic pleasure. This static archive was transformed into a malleable one: a means of examining the visual representation of ideologies and the inner workings, fantasies and failures of Really Existing Socialism. Doreen Mende has stressed that the project pivoted around the images’ actual intended use, for example, the photographs taken in factories and of workers were designed as advertising for the products presented at the fair. However, quite unlike most mainstream capitalist advertising, they focused not on the site of consumption, but production – the factory floor – revealing the labour behind these commodities, de-fetishizing them and foregrounding their social relations. In contrast, Mende’s images documenting the foreign delegations to the fair were produced as gifts for those visitors – becoming a kind of visual currency of exchange. As Doreen Mende has observed, the Leipzig fair also acted as a site for consolidating relations between socialist nations around the world. Many had been involved in revolutionary struggles for liberation since the mid-1970s, such as Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia, yet were not necessarily trade partners with the GDR. The photographs of delegates from these countries marked the visual production of these relations. These were examined in the works by Belete, Kiluanji Kia Henda, Sven Johne, Linke, and Wandel, who engaged in the pasts and presents of such globalized socialist geographies. This transnational focus worked against the majority of cultural histories of GDR socialism that have positioned its cultural and economic production as operating in a totalitarian vacuum – repressing the international relations of socialism and capitalism. Double Bound Economies consequently used the photographic archive to develop a vocabulary about the ambivalent relationship between socialism and capitalism embodied and performed in images. In so doing it also projected the photographic archive into the present. Addressing Mende’s photographs in the accompanying book, Fisher asked: ‘what are we seeing here? The dying embers of Socialist Realism, or the spectres of a Capitalist Realism to come? Or something else altogether: the shades of something that never quite came to be…?’2 Fisher concludes that Mende’s pictures might also be understood as revealing something more profound: that the capitalist imaginary – and its economic system – can be recognized as far more simulacral and fantastical than Really Existing Socialism’s ever was.3
In terms of its radical rethinking of the archive, disputing of Cold War historiographic narratives and transnational perspective, Double Bound Economies compares with the recent exhibitions and research projects undertaken by the curator Jorge Ribalta. Ribalta has sought to make visible the photographic archives of the Left, marginalized in part because of the Cold War. For example, the Global Worker Photography Movement formed in the 1920s was the subject of his major exhibition A Hard Merciless Light. The Worker Photography Movement, 1926–1939, shown at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid in 2011.4 In this and other projects Ribalta similarly approaches the exhibition as a space of production, exchange and dialogue, and as only one manifestation of a much larger archival and research-based project. However, the curatorial strategy of Double Bound Economies was arguably more conceptually-oriented than Ribalta’s historical approach – driven as it is by the urge to re-engage photography’s marginalized histories. Instead, Double Bound Economies’s conceptual strategies relate more closely to the recent exhibition projects undertaken by curator Anselm Franke at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt – particularly The Whole Earth (a collaboration with Diedrich Diederichsen) and After Year Zero (both 2013). In these projects Franke also transformed the exhibition into a kind of sprawling pedagogical archive – one also attendant to the complex and often intertwined histories of post-colonialism and anti-capitalism. Franke’s exhibitions have sought a productively dislocating perspective on archival materials and put them into conversation with artworks. If for Double Bound Economies the Leipzig fair operated, as Fisher has rightly described, as a non-place of ‘canivalesque inversion’ performed primarily for the West,5 in Franke’s archival projects, the concept of ‘extraterritoriality’ – taken from Eyal Weizman – has enabled him to focus on what he terms ‘frontiers’. These are spaces similarly defined by their intense production of a projected imaginary intended for the Other, which create a visual economy that is also always a kind of export. Yet unlike the multiple collective constellation-like reiterations at the heart of Double Bound Economies, Franke’s approach is closer to a kind of curatorial translation of cultural histories and academic polemics – grand, sweeping, sometimes-idiosyncratic narratives told through a visual archive of assembled artefacts and artworks.
Double Bound Economies was, in part, representative of a recent turn away from narratives of melancholia or mourning which accounted for much of the first-wave of exhibition-making and artistic practice responding to the dissolution of socialism in the former Eastern Bloc. Following the project, other recent exhibitions have attempted a more nuanced remapping of the socialist imaginary – working with the ambivalences and contradictions within photographic archives. For example, the exhibition Colour for the Republic recently shown at Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum, was based on two GDR archives – those of the professional photographers Martin Schmidt and Kurt Schwarzer – which, like Mende’s documented workers and the production of goods for trade organizations and publicly owned companies. However, despite providing an important counter to the clichéd, dowdy black and white documentary image-world – often lazily mobilized as a means of symbolizing the totalitarian banality of the former East – without any strong conceptual or thematic framing, the exhibited photographs remained as static documents rooted in the past, albeit a lesser known and technicolour one. Closer to Double Bound Economies, but on a much more intimate scale, the artist Wilhelm Klotzek has been working on an ongoing project using his father Peter Woelck’s GDR photographic archive. Collaborating with curator Bettina Klein, Klotzek presented clusters of his father’s private and commercial images as sculptural installations in the exhibition Nach der Schicht (After the Shift) at Berlin’s Laura Mars Gallery in 2013. These took the form of paratactical and thematic arrangements of his father’s black and white photographs on coloured faux-leather display boards. Working against the models of the historical archive or retrospective, Klotzek asserted the dialogic, subjective and humorous nature of the intervention. By designing a deliberately provisional system, bringing together iconic images of the construction of Berlin’s TV Tower taken by Woelck with casual and intimate portraits from his father’s private archive, Klotzek collapsed the distances between the public and private / high and low subjects presented. Like Double Bound Economies, Klotzek rejected the visual clichés of Really Existing Socialism – May Day parades or socialist holiday camps – and projected his father’s images into unknown future constellations.
Other recent artistic projects based around East German archival sources have attempted to map Really Existing Socialism onto the political and economic situation of the present. For example, Phil Collins’ marxism today (prologue) and use! value! exchange! (both 2010) made an imaginative intervention into the GDR’s visual archive – drawing on oral histories, television, photographs, magazines, music and books – to offer a nuanced reflection on the fate of Marxist-Leninist teaching. Montaging archival material with recent interviews with former GDR schoolteachers, Collins’ project handled modes of documentary, technology and popular culture with a highly sophisticated but light touch. Collins positioned Marxist-Leninist pedagogy as an everyday ideology rooted in individual lives and habitual experiences, and as continuing to contain valuable lessons for the post-financial crisis world of today. If Collins’ video work sometimes deliberately resists the museum and art market, other artists such as Burkhardt von Harder and Simon Menner have engaged with the same socialist past and its photographic archives to seemingly affirm the latter’s artistic status. For example, in his project Top Secret: Images from the Archives of the Stasi (2013) Menner found and re-presented a lost archive of humorous Stasi photographic portraits, supposedly internal training photos. Similarly, Von Harder has published a series of photobooks of images he apparently retrieved from rubbish bags in the Ukraine containing thousands of degraded photojournalistic negatives. Despite playing conceptually with the authenticity of the photograph as document (are these real historical documents or performative, fictionalized creations?) and seeming to knowingly mock the current appetite for Ostalgie, both artists arguably engage in a rather more outmoded kind of postmodern enquiry. Ultimately they succeed in re-fetishizing and rarefying the photographic images – positioning them chiefly as art objects at home within the market. In contrast, the interdisciplinary exhibition project The Forgotten Pioneer Movement (TFPM) (2014), currently taking place across multiple venues in Berlin, rejects the traditional artwork to privilege performance and collaborative workshops. Equally it problematizes a fetishistic or nostalgic perspective on a socialist past, instead bringing together a group of artists and thinkers to explore what it means to be part of a transitional generation whose childhood was marked by the transition from socialism to post-socialism.
If Double Bound Economies used the personal archive of one photographer to reactivate a communist future that never happened, then the project Travelling Communiqué (2014), with which Doreen Mende and Linke have also been engaged since 2012, raises the stakes and complexities exponentially. Travelling Communiqué saw Mende and Linke – together with Milica Tomi´c and with support from Kodwo Eshun, Branimir Stojanovi´c and Miroljub Miki Stojanovi´c – develop an epic investigation into the photographic press archive of Josip Broz Tito. The archive consists of around 300,000 images that had been digitized as part of a project led by the curators Radovan Cuki´c, Ivan Manojlovi´c and Mirjana Slavkovi at the Museum of Yugoslav History in Belgrade. Travelling Communiqué – culminating in an exhibition at the museum in June – focused on a collection of 1,200 photographs taken during the first conference of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), held in Belgrade in 1961. If the Leipzig Trade Fair pictures offered a locus for examining the economic schizophrenia of the Cold War, then images of the founding of NAM provide a means of revisiting a pivotal moment in the Cold War: when this transnational movement pitched itself against the binary power blocks of the period and in solidarity with the anti-colonialist liberation struggles taking place at the time.
The guiding concept of Travelling Communiqué was the idea of political friendship. At question was how to open up this historically repressed model of global cooperation to a generation without any first-hand experience of it. The project’s trans-disciplinary and pedagogical approach was exemplified by an ambitious and internationally oriented year-long educational project, including collaborations with the Dutch Art Institute and the Netsa Art Village in Addis Ababa. At the same time the project grounded these questions locally through an engagement with the specific politics of the former Yugoslavia and the current cultural and political situation in Serbia. This was achieved via a research and reading group and ongoing series of workshops and film screenings in Belgrade, as well as an engagement with the institutional history and architecture of the museum itself. In the exhibition, the archival images – including photographs of the NAM conference proceedings, of Tito and various delegates meeting and speaking – were presented alongside artworks, performances and films, including those by Jean-Luc Godard, Tomi´c, Linke and The Otolith Group. The latter produced an El-Lissitzky-like photo-fresco wall mural Gather round me, my writers, musicians, artists: my name is NAM (2014), which montaged figures and fragments from 905 of the archival photographs in the exhibition. Acting as a kind of manifesto for the project, the work situated the archival images as visual embodiments of the ideas announced at the 1961 conference. Thus, unlike the somewhat retrospective moves of Double Bound Economies, the photographic images at the centre of Travelling Communiqué are reimagined as urgent dispatches to the future. Further highlighting this futural dimension and collective authorship, the exhibition space also contained stacks of paper proposals from thinkers and artists responding to a question proposed by Branimir Stojanovi´c: ‘who is the addressee of the Communiqué today?’
Travelling Communiqué worked against tired conceptions of the ruins or spectres of modernity which have coloured many recent exhibitions and research projects. Countering any utopian reading of NAM politics, Travelling Communiqué instead sought to activate the transnational, collective and unfinished nature of the movement – returning to remap its goals and ideals onto present social conditions. Here the photograph is characterized as mobile, but not in terms of Hito Steyerl’s ceaselessly travelling ‘poor image’ – the digital copy always in motion and conceived as a kind of ghost of the image.6 Instead, by imagining the photograph as a travelling communiqué, the curators’ approach was closer to Tarek Elhaik’s idea of the ‘incurable image’ – one that refuses the curatorial urge to be ‘cured’, normalized or made to stand still.
1 See Stefan Heidenreich, Double Bound Economies, Art Agenda, July 24, 2013 http://www.art-agenda.com/reviews/double-bound-economies/
2 Ibid., p. 67
3 Ibid., p. 73
4 Jorge Ribalta, ed., The Worker Photography Movement, 1926–1939: Essays and Documents (TF Editores, Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid, 2011)
5 See Mark Fisher, Specters and Simulations of the GDR, Double Bound Economies, (Spector Books, Leipzig, 2013), p. 67
6 See Hito Steyerl, In Defense of the Poor Image, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/
Sarah E. James is a lecturer in History of Art at University College London and author of Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures Across the Iron Curtain (Yale University Press, 2013).
First published in Issue 17