Waste Book Excerpts | Back to Start
Dear Laura, I’m sitting here tonight in semi-darkness, glad that I was finally able to start writing my journal. In January, I met with Giaco (philosopher, cultural scientist and my primary advisor) in Berlin and he brought up the subject of the »waste book«. The German term »Sudelbuch« is what German mathematician, physicist and writer Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, and also German journalist and writer Kurt Tucholsky, called their collections of aphorisms and ideas. The name probably stems from the language of commerce, and designates a jotter in which notes on daily business were randomly recorded, in no particular order. What a great contradiction this is, making the effort to take notes that are regarded from the outset to be wasted and superfluous.
In preparation for the introductory seminar on artistic research, which we are holding jointly at Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) for students in the master’s programme for Fine Arts, I was reminded of the American writer Henry David Thoreau and his book »Walden« (Thoreau, 1854). I don’t remember exactly why this occurred to me. Perhaps I just asked myself how Thoreau spent his time alone at the pond. Quite obviously, he spent it writing. In an interview on Deutschlandradio Kultur last week, novelist Esther Kinsky mentioned that she holds Thoreau’s journals to be his real literary achievement (see Gerk, 2018). I read fragments of said journals on the internet and got myself a German book edition so that I could select excerpts for our classes. I’m thrilled by the way Thoreau jumps from observations about nature to dealing with ancient authors, weaving in his own poems in passing. I would like to suggest that we read excerpts from these texts (Thoreau, 1837-1861, pp. 14–27, pp. 179–220, pp. 247–307) together with the students in April. Since we are focusing on autobiographical research, the »Journals« could be a useful inspiration for them. What do you reckon?
We’ll meet up on 26.02.
See you soon in Zurich, K
Valie Export (Austrian performance artist) speaks at the Berlinale film festival about her research centre in Linz. It was set up in the old tobacco factory after which she named herself: Export. As a child after the war, she had often gone foraging to the farmers in the Austrian Mühlenviertel district and always passed by this factory. She had never been inside, though. »The life of an artist never ends«, the radio host comments (cf. Bürger, 2018).
Read in Alexander Kluge’s (German lawyer, writer and filmmaker) »Lebensläufe« (‘Case Histories’). Passage: a fictive conversation with a concentration camp guard about an experiment in which two inmates who had once been lovers are forced to have intercourse – a possible situation in the camps made vivid with language (cf. Kluge, 1986, pp. 142–145).
Effect: The snapshot of a horrific space is intensified by the form of the supposedly objective questioning of the guard and the apathetically depicted heinousness of the actions related. Klaus Theweleit (German literary scholar and writer): »Männerphantasien« (‘Male Fantasies’), – see his montage technique! (Theweleit, 1977).
Tonight, my father and I caught a purse snatcher on Uferstraße. He was mummed, short, and had Asian features. We haul him into the warm room in the church. I throw him to the floor, step on his hands so that he cannot escape. He remains surprisingly quiet. My father calls the police. The room is crammed full of furniture, a large double bed is pushed up against the wall. A few children or teenagers are sitting on it. I can’t tell exactly. I yell at the thief. Apparently, he does not understand me, and hesitantly hands me his passport. His name is Tomkoko. There it says in Cyrillic that he is a doctor and evidently a woman.
I pull her back up to her feet. We sit down on the bed with the children, who, judging from their behaviour and appearance, have left their childhood already far behind. Tomkoko says she comes from a small country on the border of Mongolia. She fled to Germany with some friends after graduating from university, hoping to work as a medical doctor. But they never made it any further than Berlin. No wonder during this winter. When they ran out of money, they began robbing passers-by and tourists along the river. I hesitate. Should I turn Tomkoko and the others into the police? The sirens are getting closer.
On the phone my father sounds like his nerves are on edge. He says that we are in the midst of a major shift, and that many are not aware of it. He speaks of young people who lack the education to keep up. »Euthanasia is not a solution, of course«, he says. »But one can hope that a few of them kill themselves.« I can’t believe what he is saying. He talks about the right-wing Pegida movement in the town of Dresden and says that he wants to know exactly what’s behind it. »Something will change, things can’t continue going on like this«, he explains agitatedly, and then reports in great detail about the new trickle charger he bought himself to extend the life of his car battery. The last one he bought at a DIY warehouse would not be working much longer. It was simply broken after ten years. His old device made in the GDR, in contrast, is still running perfectly.
That word: euthanasia. What is going on with my father these days?
Reading: Franz Kafka (Czech, German-language writer and insurance employee), »Brief an den Vater« (‘Letter to the Father’), scene at the dinner table: The father attempts to teach his son manners. »The main thing was that the bread should be cut straight. But it didn’t matter that you did it with a knife dripping with gravy. […] these minor details only became depressing for me because you, so tremendously the authoritative man, did not keep the commandments you imposed on me.« (Kafka, 1919, pp. 10-11)
In September 2016, I told my father that I needed the pistol for one of my photographs. He digs it up somewhere at home; in Plauen he hands it to me temporarily and asks no questions. He has even brought it to me to Berlin–neatly folded into white paper towels, and placed in a bluish freezer bag. Today it would no longer be legal in Germany without the so-called small firearms licence. In our conversation, Laura points out that both my black-and-white and colour photographs of the 21 locations (of violence) that form the crucial directory, require appropriate space in the book. She’s right, this way the picture section of the book I am working on acquires an additional semantic level. In 2016, at the beginning of my work on the series of photographs, I actually wanted to use only black-and-white pictures.
It is important for me to show, that regarding my own history there is no longer just one correct image or one single photograph. That is why I deliberately did not take these pictures like a »real photographer«–no tripod, no hundred per cent congruency in all the images. There is a reason why I am relying on the re-enactment of my own memories. Reference here: Kierkegaard’s strategy of repetition (cf. Kierkegaard, 1843).
Talking with Giaco, I want to clarify how moving my writing through time and through my memories should best be structured. He agrees with me that the conscious feigning of facts is out of the question. Even though the artistic shaping of material is always also construction, ultimately the essence of my work concerns the creation of truthfulness (not the »one« truth that does not exist). For some time now, our conversations have been flowing easily and rapidly. I know when that had started.
I’m supposed to prove my language skills in French. A test is required. I peer over at the students sitting next to me and understand only a fraction of the assignment. The exam is about actresses I hardly know. Damn! Why did I never really learn French? Since I studied Latin at the university, I can make sense of texts that are not too complex. I can put together a few simple sentences. But the rest! English was the language of the West when I was in school. Now I’m sitting here and time is running out. Slide your answers over here, damn it!
At noon in Zurich I meet with Hannes (the third advisor of my dissertation), who is accompanying my work as a photographer/artist, to show him large-format photographs of the three weapons I took for my work. Florian, a colleague of Hannes, told me later that we looked like two little boys in front of the screen. He had secretly observed us during our conversation. Of course, it is that these tools of violence, which all are coincidentally coated in black, trigger various kinds of reactions–which are related to omnipotence, destructive power, hubris and other, presumably male fantasies. Photography enables me to study them visually as instruments of exerting power, while at the same time keeping my distance from them. This way, they lose part of their power, for me at least.
To take the photographs I had hung the objects in front of a large format camera with a fishing line. Hannes thinks there is something light and playful in this approach. He sees the suspended weapons as mobiles. This was not my intention at the beginning, but perhaps this creates a necessary contrast to their meaning as tools of brutal violence. Initially I had thought about retouching the fishing line in the pictures; Hannes instead encourages me to trust my intuition and admit this supposed imperfection into my work.
During a shared meal the next day, Florian asks me if I have served in the army. I say no, but tell him about the »wars« we fought in the early 1990's against neo-Nazi groups in the streets of my hometown Plauen and elsewhere. He seems to be disgusted and fascinated at the same time.
Dear Laura, we were talking about the issue of working with analogue film material. I prefer to photograph everything that is dear to my heart on photographic film. Why is that so important to me, you might ask. I could list a whole number of things, but I’ll refrain and would like to give you a couple of my own fundamental convictions.
An analogue photograph, when one looks at it really closely, is composed of many thousands of chaotically dispersed pixels, the so-called film grain that is generated by the reflection of silver ions that were exposed to light. No digital image can imitate that structure. Working digitally means capturing the world in numbers, ones and zeroes, millions of small, precisely arranged cubes or pixels, technically perfected and thus always shaped exactly the same. Modern-day engineers' striving for perfection, as opposed to the chaos of alchemy. But how can one explain that to anybody today? Who looks so closely anymore? If we no longer attach any major importance to the things that surround us, then how can we still appreciate analogue pictures of them?
For Sartre, the image served »to decode, to understand, to explain« (Sartre, 1997, p. 199) and it is a »psychic act« (ibid., p. 201), »not a thing« (ibid., p. 242). Today’s selfie culture is destroying this reflective aspect of photography. I prefer to use the analogue process for my work because it is slow and not perfect down to the last detail. While I am photographing, I do not want to know right away whether I have captured an image that is valid for me. Instead I appreciate the uncertainty and the inherent waiting for a result which is associated with this cultural technology that is regarded to be obsolete today. I want to think first, and then take action. That’s why I almost always start my works like the Canadian artist Jeff Wall: by first not photographing at all (cf. O’Hagan, 2015).
Kind regards, K
Had picked out a book about Serge Stauffer (Swiss photographer, artist and art educator) from Laura’s library and read it all night long (cf. Helmhaus Zürich und Stadt Zürich Kultur, 2013). Stauffer himself was also a photographer, graduated from the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts and later supervised the »Farbe und Form« (‘Colour and Shape’) class and teamed up with his wife Doris and other campaigners for new educational forms to found the private F+F art school in Zurich (cf. Koller and Züst, 2015). Stauffer considered himself an art researcher, and made this stance the foundation of all his teaching activities. As early as the 1970's he wrote a sort of manifesto comprised of his theses on art and research (cf. Helmhaus Zürich and Stadt Zürich Kultur, 2013, pp. 179-231).
»Thesis 8: Art research necessitates a methodology that is all its own; it cannot make use of natural science methodology, but can take inspiration from it« (ibid., p. 217). Stauffer thus advocates educating a new type of art researcher, who must be trained as an art researcher through the acquisition of a sufficient degree of life experience and through a yet to be defined comprehensive »special study programme« (ibid., pp. 209-210). Stauffer’s considerations on art as research are still valid today. He divined possible depths of that area of research, and thus focused entirely on research activity and investigative experimentation. He had grasped that it would take time to open up this new field and put art research on an equal footing with the established branches of research. I would have liked to discuss this with him in more detail if he were still alive.
Dear Laura, one morning you told me about your dystopian dream. According to your description, you have been forced to rush through a narrow tunnel, chased by malicious haunters. I wish you would be able to shake them off to eventually escape. But it looks as if they would not let up on you and finally make their move after all. But I’m convinced you will find your way out of that tunnel.
I’ll see you soon.
After the conversation with Durs Grünbein (East German poet and essayist) at Kulturpalast Dresden, Uwe Tellkamp (East German doctor and writer), author of the book »The Tower« (Tellkamp, 2008), can definitively be considered a supporter of the right-wing Pegida campaign group. He believes he can discern a »corridor of conviction«; in the debate with the poet he bemoans that chancellor Merkel's government lacks fidelity to the Basic Law of Germany (Großmann, 2018; Reinhard, 2018). But what does all of this have to do with me? I have the disquieting feeling that to a certain degree deep down I am one of them too – concerned with traditional values, diffusely patriotic, often with a rather right-wing twist. Several elements in our biographies are similar – a conscious distance to the state in certain areas of the GDR regime, the adherence to traditional bourgeois values regarding the role of the family, and to see the family home so to speak as a kind of bulwark against everything communist.
I was perilously close to falling for the seductions of the right-wing movement. It started with a furtive fascination for the skinhead attack on a punk concert at the Zionskirche in East Berlin in autumn 1987 (cf. Becker, 2017); later, at the polytechnic secondary school, there were provocative greetings from a kindred spirit with the Nazi salute every morning. During taking my A-Levels, as we prepared for the school leaving certificate in the early 1990's, a quite charismatic neo-Nazi transferred to our school, who wore the keffiyeh, a Palestinian scarf, around his neck and was always on the lookout for comrades-in-arms.
If I remember correctly, he tried to befriend me as well. While I contemplate these entanglements, Beate Zschäpe comes to mind, the half-Romanian child of a dentist from the East German town of Jena, who became a member of the neo-Nazi terrorist group NSU. Zschäpe was born a few days before me; in old videos she looks a bit like Antje, my first girlfriend. I could have been like her - a regular at a right-wing establishment like the so-called "Winzerclub" in the borough of Jena-Winzerla, with the difference that in my hometown it would have been called »The Ranch«. I could have also been bellowing and throwing punches with right-wing extremists like Uwe Bönhardt and Uwe Mundlos, somewhat similar to what actor Edward Norton does in his role as a Nazi in the movie »American History X« (Kaye, 1998). Perhaps I would even have gone further, who knows. I would like to talk about all of this with Beate Zschäpe if I could.
Reading in »Zen in the Art of Writing« (Bradbury, 1994) by Ray Bradbury (US- American writer and screenwriter). »In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth dead-falling and tiger-trapping.« (ibid., p. 13). Throughout the last chapter Bradbury repeatedly notes four words: Work. Relaxation. Don’t Think! (cf. Bradbury, 1994, pp. 139 – 156).
Just before 07:00 am, I awake with a start. I had a repulsive dream. I chopped off the head of somebody I know. It wasn’t easy. I had to hit hard several times. There was blood everywhere. When the head was lying there, disembodied, I woke up. I was nauseated. Laura told me later that she had dreamed something peculiar, too. But she refrained from describing it.
One of the students in the workshop at ZHdK asked me why I was taking analogue photographs for my PhD. Previously I had followed the method used by various photographer role models of mine and thus used to expose the edges of my photographic negatives when making prints, to show exactly what I had recorded – without any further manipulation. A British student emphasises the transparency in my dealing with the presented artefacts. An Iranian student says she can identify with the images and stories I had presented, although we are separated by years and worlds. Is this because her experience with life in Iran and my experience with life in the GDR are comparable, at least in part, in regard to the repressive character of both systems of government?
The deliberate exercise of structural violence was and is characteristic for both these states; in comparison it hardly matters whether the organs of repressions are called State Security or Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
When I get home from the train late at night, Franz Kafka’s »Brief an den Vater« ['Letter to the Father’] is lying open on the side table in our living room. My father fished the small booklet from my pile of workbooks. We talked about it this morning. He tells me that he googled »Franz Kafka« and read that the writer was supposed to have had strange and complicated sexual preferences and to have made up part of his text.
How to respond? I tell him that Kafka himself never wanted to publish the letter. I don’t know whether my father gets the hint. But I am secretly pleased that he started reading Kafka’s work. Perhaps this can provide a basis for the conversation ahead of us when my research work is done and the book is finished.
How should I now organise my writing research into the past? Do I start in 2010, at the moment when I entered into today’s research on my PhD with the work on the project »Inner City Blues«? Or do I write from today into the future and pause at certain moments to look back?
Taking a long walk across the frozen Baltic Sea off Helsinki together with Jan (Finnish artist, university professor, researcher and second advisor of the PhD). We talk about the prolonged oppression of the Finns by the Swedes and Russians, which did not end until 1917. Jan helps me prepare for my presentation at the Photomedia conference on the following day. He thinks I should stand by my work, and not make excuses for it. On the evening before I sit in my hostel room on Katajanokka peninsula overlooking the ferry terminal. I’m tired, but I open the media library of the Franco-German Arte TV channel anyway. I watch a portrait of three crime story authors (cf. Rüter, 2016). One of them is Philip Kerr (British author of crime novels, thrillers, and fantasy novels). He is talking about a research trip to the concentration camp of Jasenovac in Croatia.
It is supposed to have been the only extermination camp in Europe in which abhorrent murders took place during the period of National Socialism without any direct German involvement. »Maks der Metzger«, or General Vjekoslav Luburic, as he was actually named, was the founder and commander of the camp. He is said to have completed his training at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Victims carted in on cattle trucks were massacred directly upon arrival, for there were no gas chambers in the camp. At first firearms were used to kill; later, hoes, axes, hammers and knives. I shudder at having to reconstruct in my mind the cruel history of the long-since levelled compound on the Sava River.
In his presentation during the Helsinki Photomedia Conference, Harri Laakso (Professor for Visual Cultures, Curating and Contemporary Art at Aalto University, Helsinki) brings up the term »photo-fiction theory«, which he borrowed from French philosopher François Laruelle. Laruelle developed the concept of non-photography as part of a non- standard aesthetics (Laruelle, 2014). I have a flip through his book and understand nothing at first.
Walid Raad (US-American photo artist and university professor) shows excerpts from his works, which include photography, archival work, installations and artistic speculation. He is processing his own past in Lebanon and the history of his country. The constant wars there have eaten their way into his biography. Trauma has him firmly in its grip.
He shows works by the fictitious artist collective »The Atlas Group«, which he founded (cf. Raad, 2004, 2005, 2007). What he is practising there is photographic archaeology or autoethnography. Concepts like convolution are broached; photographs become evidence of multiple acts of violence and terror. In terms of the approach and the way he deals with the subject matter, there are noticeable parallels to my own work.
Back home in Berlin I find a new issue of the German magazine »mare« in the mailbox. I browse through the stories and my interest is drawn to a text about the Yugoslavian prison camp on »Goli Otok"« ('Naked Island') (cf. Cristicchi, 2018, pp. 14-26). Croatia again, I think. This is where dictator Tito, after the break- up with his Russian counterpart Stalin in 1949, had adherents of the Soviet Union, enemies of the state, dissenters, and convicts of all kind re-educated.
In the reportage by Simone Cristicchi (Italian theatre actor and writer), a former inmate of the camp recalls fellow prisoners who had been abducted to the island directly from the German concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald. The newly arrived inmate asked these prisoners how Dachau was; they responded: »Better one month in Dachau than a single hour on Goli Otok!«
The text begins with a description of the initiation ritual which all new arrivals had to endure. They were driven down from the ships through a cordon of other prisoners into the camp. The path through this so-called »stroj« was no warm reception. The old camp inmates were forced by agents of the Yugoslavian secret police UDBA to pummel the new inmates until they could no longer walk.
No one made it more than 20 or 30 metres through the pounding of fists and kicks. I remember Philip Kerr’s story from Jasenovac and see before me a peaceful Croatian summer landscape by the sea, which I know well from my own travels.
At Easter, we travel together with our two children and my father to Gerswalde, a small town in the Uckermark region northeast of Berlin. It snowed again overnight, so we had to move the Easter egg hunt in the morning to the dining area of the country house hotel where we were staying. On the evening before we go to watch the Easter bonfire, which the local fire brigade had built out of old wooden pallets next to the church. The firefighters stand around in the rain with beer bottles in their hands, content and obviously happy that they were allowed to set something on fire for a change. My son Franz is going through his firefighter phase right now. I approach one of the important-looking members of the fire brigade and ask him to let us take our kids into the fire engine for a look from the inside. Franz and Anton are thrilled, but are scared at first when we climb up the ladder to the crew cab. Because the Easter market in nearby Boitzenburg is overflowing with people, we continue driving through the snow to the town of Prenzlau. In 1972 my father served here in the National People’s Army (NVA), which conscripts in the GDR used to call »Asche« ('The Ashes'). I let him drive on ahead. After a while he finds his bearings again and searches for the path to the barracks where he was stationed. In front of the main gate he wants a photo of the »object« and insists on posing with the cast iron gateway behind him. The guards on duty allowed themselves to be persuaded, so we were finally able to take the picture despite the existing general ban on photography.
Beforehand, my father had addressed a passer-by in town and asked where the barracks were located. To his volunteered information that he served here more than 40 years ago, the passer-by responded with a short and dry, but genuine salute: »Respect!« Later, over hot chocolate and apple strudel with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream on top in a café in the centre of Prenzlau, my father digs up old stories.
About the Russians who had shot up the town at the end of the war, continuing with his officer’s boozing sessions, all the way to a visit by my mother. In 1973 she was in town for two or three days. They have taken a hotel room together and were able to escape from everyday life for a couple hours. My father recalls that on the day he was drafted for military service, he initially walked several kilometres past the barracks and considered not to enter the compound. But if the military police had picked him up anywhere, he would have landed in jail.
Reading: Hans Belting’s (German art historian and media theorist) »Bild-Anthropologie« [‘An Anthropology of Images’]. Photographic images symbolise our perception of the world and our remembrance of the world, he states (Belting, 2011, p. 214). In his understanding, photography no longer shows how the world is, instead it rather depicts how it was when one still believed it was possible to possess it in photographs, and it is our shifting view of the world – and sometimes a view of our own view (ibid., p. 215)
On Saturday afternoon, a 48-year-old man drives his camper van into a crowd of people in the town of Münster. A 51-year-old woman and a 65-year-old man succumb to their injuries, 20 others are injured. The driver of the vehicle shoots himself at the scene of the crime. He left behind an 18-page concoction (as the police call it) in an apartment in the German federal state of Saxony, in which he disparages his parents and mourns his own life. He is said to have been a successful designer. Investigators exclude the possibility of a terrorist background (cf. Meyer et al., 2018; Sterz, 2018).
In an abandoned village on a wooded lake I meet a young man, rather more of a boy, with brown eyes and brown hair. He guides me through the village and tells me that he comes from Katyn.
Although it’s just the two of us roaming through the place talking, I have the feeling that he wants to lure me into a trap. Why Katyn, of all places? That question haunts me until four in the morning. Suddenly, my children wake up crying and refuse to go back to sleep.
My father tells me on the phone yet again about the argument which my mother’s mother got into with her brother in the 1960's. She was actually destined for a future of continuing to help out on her family’s farm, tending to the livestock and assisting her brother with the work in the fields. But she had decided on a completely different life with her husband, a former prisoner of war in the US, who became the bookkeeper of a construction company in a town close by. It made her brother so furious that once he threw a pitchfork at her and her children. At that, my grandmother renounced her entire inheritance and severed all contact with her family, even though they still all lived in the same village.
In the afternoon, I have a meeting with other researchers working in the archives of the GDR opposition at the Robert Havemann Society Berlin. The staff members are now working in the so-called »Magdalena« building complex. We meet up in the former »Büro der Abteilung für Geheimnisschutz« [‘Office of the Department for the Protection of Secrecy’].
It feels strange to be working in the former headquarters of the »Stasi« or Ministry for State Security of the GDR (MfS) now. The fear of the »Chekists« – as they used to call themselves – is still perceptible in the dreary hallways, although decades have passed since the end of their rule. Together with a group of artists, I research once more in the files, photographs, and other documents of the GDR opposition. In addition to the Stasi photos of the demonstration on 7 October 1989 in my hometown Plauen I had already found before, I know that there is also other material from private photographers and filmmakers.
Back in 1989 I had seen presumptive State Security agents on rooftops and on the tower of the town hall in the city centre. Quite curious to see what else I might find. One of the participating artists brings up the term »Generation der Unberatenen« ('generation of the unadvised'), which Bernd Lindner, a sociologist from Leipzig, coined for those born between 1973 and 1984 (Lindner, 2006, p. 93). Around 2.4 million people are supposed to have been born in the GDR during this period. Cultural scientist Tanja Bürgel speaks regarding their mental state of a »metaphysische Ortlosigkeit« (‘metaphysical placelessness’) (Bürgel, 2006, p. 470). This makes me think of the term »homelessness« – a new, other »Ohne-Halt-sein« ('to be without stability and footing'), but one that I do not want to readily equate with the feeling of the war generation in the Germany of the 1950's, which German lyricist and essayist Hans Egon Holthusen described with the phrase »der unbehauste Mensch« ('the homeless man') (cf. Holthusen, 1964, pp. 7–10). The idea of the (family) house, a place that is intended above all else to provide protection – the tent as a substitute house, which I used as a place of refuge one summer. Being without housing, without a place in which one can feel accepted and safe – probably the central problem that shapes my biography, I think.
At 07:18 am I receive an email from Giaco. It bears the title: »Read!«, and is about an article in the literature section 12/18 of the weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT about the young, West-German–born writer Thorsten Palzhoff and his debut novel »Nebentage« (Camman, 2018). The emerging author writes in excessive language about an 18-year-old West German who makes his way to »post-revolutionary« Leipzig in 1990 and takes on an East German identity with the help of a razor blade and a little skill. I order the book immediately.
While the children sleep, I search the internet for film material on the events of Autumn 1989 in Plauen. By coincidence, on YouTube I happen upon an MDR (Central German Broadcasting) documentary by Thomas Grimm about Roberto Yáñez, GDR head of state Erich Honecker’s grandson, who has been living in Chile since his fleeing from East Germany in the 1990's (cf. Grimm, 2013; Yáñez and Grimm, 2018).
Yáñez is just a year older than I and – contrary to what would have been expected from a child of the East German ruling elite – he was deeply marked by wounds similar to my own (cf. Blasberg, 2011). In 2013 he came back to Berlin for the first time in 23 years to exhibit his paintings and to read his poems. In Chile he lived with his grandmother Margot Honecker until her death. That must have been a challenge for such a sensitive man. Margot was not exactly known for her delicacy of feeling. Roberto had left the GDR as a child and gradually lost himself during the 1990's. Experimentation with drugs and repeated stays in the Chilean part of the Atacama Desert did the rest. Yáñez had to undergo psychiatric treatment. His father Leonardo had left the family in Chile.
Fortunately, Roberto is devoid of GDR-mania. He lived many years on the margins of society as a busker, poet, and surrealist painter, and cultivates a sense of humility. When he is back in Berlin in 2013 and visits the places of his remembrance, he says in the film that this act of facing up to the locations of his past was an act of recovery.
In the morning, Ula tells me about an interview that’s currently on the air on Deutschlandfunk radio: today, Manja Präkels is discussing her novel »Als ich mit Hitler Schnapskirschen aß« about her youth in the East German town of Zehdenick (cf. Hanselmann, 2018). Präkels, like Thorsten Palzhoff, is my age. Presumably it is no coincidence that, little by little, I am encountering these authors.
Such interim balance-taking of one’s life at the age of 40, experiences that are at times difficult to believe and to process, can probably only be coped with using the means of artistic alienation. The events are just a few years ago, most of the protagonists are still alive, impressions are still fresh.
I ride my bike to the Robert Havemann Gesellschaft (Archives of the GDR Opposition) in Berlin. There are files awaiting me which are connected with the events on 7 October 1989 in my hometown Plauen.
I began my research in this archive ten years ago, when it was still located on Schliemannstraße in the Prenzlauer Berg borough. Unfortunately, not much new material has arrived. Seeking additional photos of the demonstration back then, I am referred to a photographer from Plauen. But I already know his material. He photographed the police helicopter that was circling over us at that time. Strangely enough, there appears to be hardly any further material on the military, police and firefighting operations against us demonstrators.
I remember today that, when I first got my hands on the remaining 23 colour and black-and-white prints that were stored in the regional office of the BStU (Archives of the Records of the State Security Service of the GDR) in the town of Chemnitz – there are no negatives for the prints preserved in the archives, and the bulk of the material is blurry; the colours are washed out, the black-and-white photographs are muddy grey – I was simultaneously disappointed and at ease. I felt relieved because I realised that, with this material, the State Security Service would hardly have been able to prove that any of the participants had committed crimes – or what was considered a crime in those days.
I was disappointed, because I thought in the material of the so-called »Stasi« I would be able to find pictures of the barricades we had built to hold back attacking soldiers (or were they riot police?). For reasons that can no longer be clarified, precisely these photographs are missing. I look for evidence in the pictures taken by the the State Security Service to confirm that I have actually participated myself in the first demonstration against the GDR government.
After examining every square centimetre of the photographs with a magnifying glass, I believe I found myself on two of the prints, one in colour and one black-and-white. Reflecting about the events, I remember a grey junction box on which a few of us had climbed. This box can be seen in the photos; three youths are sitting atop it under an umbrella, and another three are standing right next to it. That could be my girlfriend at the time, Antje, my best friend Kay-Uwe, and I.
I also review archive material that is not directly related to the events in Plauen, and come across a report by the artist and writer Gabriele Stötzer, who writes about her time in the women’s prison Burg Hoheneck under the title »Dabeisein und nicht schweigen« [‘Be present and do not keep quiet’] (Stötzer, 1977; BStU, 2014). Between 1977 and 1978 she was imprisoned at Hoheneck for participating in the protest against the expatriation of the GDR singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann. Precisely and evocatively, Stötzer describes everyday life, the power structures, and her suffering in prison. Her writing style: simple and matter-of-fact.
Such a kind of approach is probably what is needed to create distance between oneself and what happened. I also read of young Soviet soldiers who attempted to desert in the GDR (cf. Kuck, 2017). Few succeeded; many were picked up by the Volkspolizei (People’s Police) or the Soviet Army and sent on to an unknown fate. One of them was just 19 and had taken a family as hostages. On the run some stole, raped, or even killed people. I see their faces before me while I read through the dry, apathetic lines of the police reports.
There are photos of some of the deserters. I ask myself what happened to them and whether they might still be alive. After reading the files I feel a peculiar tingling in the fingers of my right hand. It doesn’t go away until I get home and wash my hands over and over.