After concluding my Master’s degree in Fine Arts at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) in 2011, I had begun to address acts of violence which at that time had become characteristic for Berlin, where I have lived with my family for 20 years. Since 2010 it seemed as if the metropolis were descending into violence. Cars were set alight night after night; adults, teenagers and children were attacked in subway stations, pushed down stairways or into the track beds; homeless people were lit on fire and passersby nearly beaten to death. Young people were killed in stabbings on East Berlin’s central square, Alexanderplatz, and a young man was run over by a car as he fled from a group of attackers from a subway station over the busy artery of Kaiserdamm in West Berlin.


Increasingly, I felt the need to react to this brutalisation in an artistic way. On my daily paths through the city, I thus began to perceive and observe such situations more precisely. Surrounded by moments of violence every day, I started to chronicle what I saw and experienced in notebooks–brief fragments, written sketches and notations. From this material, I developed »scenarios« for the first phase of my PhD, with the objective of re-staging these experiences and recording them photographically in the form of single still photographs taken with a large-format analogue camera. Between 2012 and 2014 a series of such stagings or artistic re-enactments emerged (in the sense of Arns, 2007, pp. 40-43) in collaboration with laypersons, dancers and actors in Berlin, some of whom had been involved in violence themselves. After these initial attempts, however, this strategy of re-enactment led me into a dead end. Aside from a repeatedly »superficial« portrayal of selected moments of violence, these images offered hardly any new moments in terms of content, and thus little room for interpretation. The discussion that followed my presentation of these works at the Geneva University of Art and Design (HEAD) made it clear to me that I urgently had to clarify why I was obsessively interested in the subject of violence and could not let it go. 


The central theme of my PhD »A History of Violence. Photography and Writing as an Experience, Experiment and Insight« is a critical confrontation with my own experiences with violence in private and public spheres during the radical societal transformation processes that began at the end of the 1980's in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and continued in East Germany during the early 1990's. This PhD attempts to illuminate and to understand the silence about the effects of the transformation before, during, and after the period known as the »Wende«. In my research, an individual history is used as an example to illustrate how political and other structures were effective throughout contemporary history, how authoritarian regimes impacted on three generations of its citizens, and what effects they have generated in the subjects. In my work, outbreaks of senseless violence are treated not only as side effects of disruptive transformation processes, but also as ambivalent situations in which the actors of the transformation find themselves when they are involved simultaneously as victims and perpetrators.


Since personal memories and historical documents served as the basis of this work, my major challenge was to carve out generalisable elements from individual examples, and to try out and experiment with various artistic formats to find an adequate means to present the material. Important sources of inspiration for this process included works like Alexander Kluge’s »Lebensläufe« (published in English as ‘Case Histories’), Primo Levi’s »Ist das ein Mensch?« (‘If This Is a Man’), Walter Benjamin’s »Denkbilder« [Thought-Images], Klaus Theweleit’s »MännerphanIntroduction tasien« (‘Male Fantasies’), Georges Didi-Huberman’s »Bilder trotz allem« (‘Images in Spite of All'), Claude Lanzman’s film »Shoah«, and W.G. Sebald’s novel »Austerlitz«. I found Michael Verhoeven’s feature film »Das schreckliche Mädchen« (released in English as 'The Nasty Girl)' (Verhoeven, 1990), which is based on the biography of a writer from Passau, Anna Elisabeth Rosmus (whose name has since been changed to Anja Rosmus-Wenninger), a further important inspiration to transgress the boundaries of good behaviour toward so-called authorities with my work. In my case this concerned primarily my relationship with my father. Verhoeven uses exaggerated comedy to show how the schoolgirl Sonja, the heroine of his film, begins to investigate the National Socialist past of her Bavarian hometown. Citizens and authorities oppose her efforts and attempt to cover up the Nazi crimes committed between 1933 and 1945.


Claude Lanzman’s documentary film »Shoah« (Lanzman, 1985) influenced me to the extent that I decided not to depict the acts of violence described in my book visually. In his film Lanzman abstained from using archival material and images of victims; instead, he conducts conversations with survivors of the Shoah, contemporary witnesses, and even with some of the perpetrators. He juxtaposes this material with landscape pictures that were taken during filming on location of the deportation and the extermination camps, primarily in Poland (see also Veiel, 2010). 


George Didi-Huberman’s »Bilder trotz allem« (Didi-Huberman, 2007), which emerged from research on four photographs, taken by prisoners in the Auschwitz concentration camp, induced me to let my work bear witness (cf. Agamben, 2017, pp. 29–35) to acts of violence that are not documented, and to perform research work archeologically by means of photographs and texts (cf. ibid., p. 76). According to  Didi-Huberman, two prisoners who were members of a special unit deployed at the crematorium succeeded in taking a series of photographs of executions in the gas chambers, in August 1944. The photographs were smuggled out of the camp with the help of Polish resistance organisations. 


Klaus Theweleit’s »Männerphantasien« (Theweleit, 1977) is an attempt to use methods of literary analysis to investigate novels, letters, and memories of Freikorps members from the 1920's, who aspired to revive militaristic Prussian traditions in the Weimar Republic, as well as from various other contemporary witnesses, for their intrinsic (fascist) fantasies of violence. This remarkable work inspired me not only because of its topic, but also for the way it combines heterogeneous sources like texts, photographs, prints, and other materials into polyphonic collages. 


Continuing along the same lines is the work »Geschichte und Eigensinn« (published in English as ‘History and Obstinacy’) by Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge (Negt and Kluge, 1982). Despite its length of 1,283 pages, the authors call it both a consumer book and a fragment, which in their view gives the reader the opportunity to confront the text independently, although – or perhaps precisely because – it includes such a wealth of material (cf. ibid., p. 5). 


The insight that I can and must develop a distance to the brutality of the events depicted from my memories came from reading Primo Levi’s book »Ist das ein Mensch?« (Levi, 1993). The author describes with great objectivity and precision the camp life of prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp, which he himself had been forced to endure for eleven months (cf. ibid., pp. 37-39). Victor Klemperer’s work »LTI. Notizbuch eines Philologen« (published in English as ‘The Language of the Third Reich: LTI Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist’s Notebook’) (Klemperer, 2005) gave me the decisive impulse to grapple with the simplification, brutalisation and political instrumentalisation of the German language practiced by the National Socialists, and to become aware of my own use of language (cf. ibid., pp. 35-37). I found further useful insights in Cornelia Schmitz-Berning’s »Vokabular des Nationalsozialismus« [The Vocabulary of National Socialism] (Schmitz-Berning, 2007). Åsne Seierstad’s book »One of Us. The Story of Anders Brevik and the Massacre in Norway« (Seierstad, 2015) finally brought my confrontation with current phenomena of violence a decisive step further. In her study of the 2011 attacks in Oslo and Utøya, she deals above all with the family history and biography of the assailant.

The following questions ultimately guided my research work:


• What are the causes for outbreaks of violence that accompany radical social change?


• How does authoritarian government action, as was customary for a country like the GDR, contribute to these causes?


• How does ideological, racist and anti-Semitic thought, which was characteristic for the Germany of National Socialism, persist even under supposedly changed social conditions like those in the GDR, and how does it influence subsequent generations?


• Which new and potentially different insights (cf. Varto, 2013, pp. 8-9) can experimentation with artistic research yield in terms of explaining and understanding violence?


The artistic research work on these central questions led to the development of a book as an experimental set-up. Its main focus is on the effect of structural violence and the entanglements that come along with it. Taking as the point of departure my own history–born in 1975, growing up as a teenager in the final phase of the GDR–I describe within it the prerequisites and consequences of the social transformation processes that eradicated the value system established in the GDR society and replaced it with the value system of its West German neighbour within a few months –with consequences for all participating societal actors that could not be foreseen at the time. 


The English language uses the rich term »forlorn« to express the feeling of being left behind, having no prospects, desperation and futility. I am not aware of any German equivalent for describing the state of existence which the East German cultural scientist Tanja Bürgel designated also as »metaphysische Ortlosigkeit« (‘metaphysical placelessness’) of the generations affected by the turnaround, especially those born in the GDR in the mid-1970's (Bürgel, 2006, p. 470). As adolescents, we were thrown into a period of transformation, into a vortex of bliss, overload, rage, incomprehension and hope. For a brief period, we faced no limits set by authorities, neither by the state nor by our families. To me, this extraordinary moment in contemporary history is particularly interesting as an object of research–the temporary collapse of all systems of order, the societal upheaval associated with this collapse and its consequences, but also the plethora of possibilities this moment offered us to shape things ourselves.

Introduction | Back to Start

The result or artefact (cf. Schliesser, 2015, p. 201) of my PhD is an experimental book format. This choice may appear classic, but in fact, the artefact submitted as my PhD thesis expands and transforms conventional book formats through its design, its structure, and the way it works. It consists of the following strands:


• A timeline that records the historical events during the Wende period in the GDR (May 1989–November 1989),


• a succinct directory of 21 personal experiences of violence,


• 21 short stories based on these experiences,


• a picture section with 42 black-and white and colour photographs,


• 21 aperçus integrated into the picture section,


• a dialogue between the characters Ka and Ischer,


• a Sudelbuch (‘waste book’) with 12 black-and-white photographs,


• a timeline pointing into the future,


• a brochure containing the introduction, closing remarks, bibliography, acknowledgements, and imprint.


The book’s approach is primarily based on techniques and methods of autoethnographic research. The focus is on critical self-observation and the attempt to understand one’s own actions and the actions of other societal actors by endeavouring to understand oneself as the object of one’s own research, in order to create a basis for more in-depth analyses and interpretations of the research object (cf. Chang, 2008, pp. 48–49). Anthropologist Deborah E. Reed-Danahay emphasises that autoethnographical research is blending various genres and voices (cf. Reed-Danahay, 1997, p. 3), referring to her »the main characteristics of an autoethnographic perspective is that the autoethnographer is a boundary-crosser« (ibid.). »The notion of autoethnography foregrounds the multiple nature of selfhood and opens up new ways of writing about social life«, she continues (ibid.). Cultural anthropologist Carolin Bretell calls this research strategy »life-writing«, situating it primarily in the works of feminist ethnographers who describe the life of women. She thereby particularly emphasises the diversity of this genre (cf. Bretell, 1997, p. 225).


The PhD submitted here as an experimental book is a hybrid of text and photography. The reader is confronted not with a diary, nor a historical treatise. Instead it presents a kind of alloy of various narrative forms and image formats, that all are based on specific contemporary events and personal memories.

The goal of this polyphonic style of composition is to make visible and comprehensible a multitude of conflict situations, voices, perspectives, and viewpoints that mutually illuminate each other. 


The methodology is influenced significantly by Winfried Georg Sebald’s technique of literary montage. Sebald indicates (in a 1997 interview with photographer Christian Scholz) that his work as a writer deliberately also incorporates photography, since what is written is not a true document, whereas he holds photography to be »the true document par excellence«. According to Sebald, people allow themselves to be convinced by a photograph (which is certainly debatable). Moreover, Sebald says that he uses his camera as »a kind of aide mémoire« (Sebald, 1997, cited in Hoffmann, 2015, p. 168). By strategically placing photographs in his texts, he integrates an additional narrative level, which serves on the one hand to convince the readers of the (presumptive) veracity of his depictions, but on the other hand to unsettle them with regard to precisely this veracity, such that the question arises during reading as to whether what is depicted actually was or could be true. In his preliminary studies on the theory of communicative action, Jürgen Habermas emphasizes that the goal of certain speech acts is to claim truthfulness for expressions of subjective experiences (cf. Habermas, 1995, pp. 588-589, author’s own translation). 


In my own artistic research work, I attempt to produce a synthesis that connects the subjective experiences of an individual with societal processes and to carve out their reciprocal effects on various societal actors. While I formally describe the metaphorical seafaring journey of my existence (cf. Blumenberg, 2018, pp. 9-10), ultimately it is a life journey which many of my contemporaries presumably undertook and have survived as well.


Egyptologist and cultural scientist Jan Assmann uses Maurice Halbwachs’ concept »mémoire collective« to point out that we remember not only what we find out from others, but also what others tell us, and what others affirm to be important and reflect back to us (cf. Assmann, 2018, p. 36). The individual memory is built in a certain individual by virtue of that individual’s participation in communicative processes […]; memory lives and is preserved in communication. Memories thus constitute an »independent system«, whose elements support and determine each other, in the individual as well as in the framework of the group (cf. Assmann, 2018, p. 37). The waste book, which runs through my entire book, consolidates or frames the individual narrative strands and refers back to eponymous notes, text collections and journals of German mathematician and physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (cf. Lichtenberg, 1776), and is also oriented on the American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s journals as well as his notes published under the title »Walden« (Thoreau, 1837–1861 and Thoreau, 1854). My waste book serves to contemplate in written form the subject of the research work, the process of dealing with the subject, the experiences I made during the process, and to reflect on a metalevel about the entire research project.


The selection of the title »A History of Violence«–instead of »My History of Violence«–is intended to express that the story told here is only one of many similar, if not identical experiences. My intention was not to work through my biography as a special case, but to use biographical references in order to provide foundations for a more differentiated, broader discussion of the subjects mentioned above. 

The »Directory of Locations and Events, 1986–2016« on the back cover of the book constitutes the basic framework of my research, and at the same time serves as a table of contents and orientation guide. On the basis of brief examples, I will elaborate how the components of the book are related to each other and upon what sources of inspiration they are based: The way in which the 21 events are listed in the directory–based on the style of typical newspaper writing or official texts–is further developed over the course of the book into 21 short stories. The format of this strand is based on straightforwardness and distance to the events. The inspiration for the arrangement of the short stories came from Alexander Kluge’s »Lebensläufe«(Kluge, 1986) and Walter Benjamin’s »Denkbilder« (Benjamin, 1994). The dialogue between the characters Ka and Ischer, which is introduced on page 21 and continues through my book, is formally oriented on didactic dialogues developed by Plato, such as the Laches dialogue (cf. Apelt et al., 1988, pp. 14–52). In my book, an older character (Ka) and its younger counterpart (Ischer)–it remains unclear whether they are an alter ego of the author, one of the fictitious characters, or two brothers–meet coincidentally and start a conversation, each relating his experiences with the stories told in the book from his own perspective. With the structure and design of the book I wanted to emphasise a further aspect: the deceptive and fragmentary function of memory (cf. Shaw, 2018, pp. 105-127 and Jeffery, 2018). 


Since my work is based primarily on my own memories, it became clear to me during the research process that one can reproduce what actually happened only in approximation and with a certain degree of imprecision. I decided therefore to allow for blind spots in the work, and to indicate these (through the design) at certain locations within the book. A further strategy for dealing with the remembered material was to weave different narrative strands of the book together coequally, to grant the reader the latitude to decide themselves on which of the individual components they want to focus.


The epoch of contemporary history depicted in my book, according to my observation, has been dealt with beyond the sciences, in the field of the arts, primarily in the field of literature. A generation of East and West German authors, most of them of younger age, whose works have informed my research, including Annette Simon (»Versuch mir und anderen die ostdeutsche Moral zu erklären«, 1995), Clemens Meyer (»Als wir träumten«, 2007), Sabine Rennefanz (»Eisenkinder«, 2013), Thorsten Palzhoff (»Nebentage«, 2018), Lukas Rietzschel (»Mit der Faust in die Welt schlagen«, 2018) and Ines Geipel (»Umkämpfte Zone. Mein Bruder, der Osten und der Hass«, 2019). They have taken on the subject of the transformation and opened up spaces for a new, deeper understanding of the upheaval and opportunities of the era that had begun slowly at first, with the inauguration of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1985, and culminated on 3 October 1990 with the accession of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG).