Bernd Lindner, a sociologist born in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), coined the term »Generation der Unberatenen« (‘generation of the unadvised’) for people whose childhood ended with the start of the »Wende« in the GDR and who grew into adolescence during this period (Lindner, 2006, p. 93). Lindner describes said generation as simultaneously »left alone and self-determined« (ibid., p. 100). What weighed most heavily on these teenagers was the general lack of parental guidance in terms of education and advice, as, from 1990 on, these parents were themselves busy »saving themselves« (ibid., p. 204). Having been born in 1975 and raised near the city of Plauen in the Vogtland region, which is part of the German federal state of Saxony today and used to belong to the district of Karl-Marx-Stadt, I myself was one of these unadvised teenagers. 


In my case, it took a distance of nearly 30 years, from the events during the transitional phase between the Wende and the period of rapid social change that immediately followed, before I was able to describe and understand the complexity and implications of the severe changes that I experienced. The aspect that was most important for my research work, namely the silence and secrecy about radical, personal experiences that accompanied the rapid societal shift in the GDR and later in East Germany, inspired me to make my own biography the object of my artistic research. I had the feeling that these experiences and the insights they yielded should be expressed and shared with others. It would certainly have been good for me to start this process much earlier, and to speak with family or members of my generation about these experiences at an earlier stage. But my parents were ensnared in their own struggles to survive and did not want or were not able to speak with me about what I was going through. Moreover, and most importantly: during this time neither my peers nor I had at our disposal the requisite capacity for reflection to understand the situation in which we suddenly found ourselves, let alone to draw the necessary conclusions from our experiences. 


The literature that gave important impetus to my research work includes valuable references to the ritualised sharing of experiences in the form of collaborative (in part artistic) work. For example, to conversations that use various narrative formats to communicate about traumatic experiences, and thus to make the inexpressible expressible (cf. Rothkegel, 1996, pp. 129–149; Ahmad, 1996, pp. 150–167; Jenkins, 1996, pp. 186–199). In his contribution to the omnibus volume »Technologies of the Self«, Michel Foucault, with reference to Plato’s Alcibiades text, emphasises that one should care for the soul, as this is the central activity of taking care of oneself (cf. Foucault, 1993, p. 35). An important part of my experience with and findings from the work on my research topic is thus that it is meaningful and helpful to actively take care of oneself, rather than (unconsciously) to lock oneself up in the suppression and concealment of important life experiences. 


It was important for me to show and to deal with the fact that, during the course of societal transformation processes, situations can arise in which it cannot be clearly distinguished who the perpetrator is and who the victim is. Therefore, one topic that runs throughout my entire work is the question of the causes of the (my) given action at certain moments of contemporary history. When I view my actions at the time critically from today’s perspective, I recognize how deeply the ideology of National Socialism had crept into the thinking of my grandparents, my parents, and even into my own way of reasoning. It starts with terms in the colloquial language I heard from adults as a child and as a teenager, which I adopted blindly, such as »Hauptstadt der Bewegung« (‘Capital of the Movement’), »innerer Reichsparteitag« (‘internal Closing Remarks Nuremberg Rally’), or the Nazi slogan »Juda verrecke!« (‘Judah croak!’).


Within my family circle there was occasional talk of how it would take »a little Hitler« to clear up societal ills. If I remember correctly, this expression was used both in the GDR and after the turnaround in East Germany. Sociologist Alois Hahn describes the objective target of self-thematisation, with reference to the American sociologist George Herbert Mead, as »the ability of the human being to see itself with the eyes of its environment« (Hahn, 1987, p. 9, author’s own translation). The individual is able to see itself from outside and experience itself as another. Such a shift in perspective, Hahn continues, is the means that allows for the emergence of something like the objectivity of one’s own self (ibid.). 


Going through the research process for this work meant, on the one hand, that I had to face up to my own past; on the other hand, it meant that I was able to criticise my younger self from the perspective of the my older self. In the sense of Sigmund Freud this amounted to conscientiously »working through« the inner resistance linked to my own biography (cf. Freud, 1914, pp. 126–136).


Only through the synthesis of two artistic research strategies–conceptual photography and experimental writing–was it possible for me to find a way to access the memories and experiences I had suppressed for many years. Furthermore, as I described in the introduction to this book, I had initially attempted to deal with the topic of experiencing acts of violence using the artistic approach of repetition–and failed to do so after several experiments with the strategy of re-enactment, as the resulting photographs provided only superficial, visual stimuli, and no deeper insight. It took a detour via an intensive analysis of the methods of play and drama therapy (see Kaiser, 2014; Husel, 2014; Rothe, 2014) to realize that in the context of my research it might make sense to take a closer look at my own biography and entanglements in a variety of violent confrontations and make this the main object of my artistic research. During the work on my PhD I discovered the potential of experimental writing, which in the figurative sense makes paper into a research tool (cf. Rheinberger, 2008, pp. 283– 284) and makes it possible to develop multi-layered text structures. This kind of writing enabled me to create the requisite critical distance to the events and to drastically shorten the associated (painful) depictions. Unlike a classical scientific text, such writing ultimately allowed me not only to link and assemble diverse kinds of textual formats, to create and allow needed blank spaces within the work, but also to integrate conceptual photography as a further, non text-based narrative strand. While my work employs various traditional means of expression and artistic strategies–such as the listing, short story, aperçu, waste book and the strategic repetition of certain components, it adapts these, converts them and rearranges them to sound out the traumatic experiences and depths of my biography.

»Memory and poetry have been intimately connected with each other from time immemorial«, wrote Egyptologist and cultural scientist Aleida Assmann in a text about memory spaces and cultural memory (Assmann, 2006, p. 103, author’s own translation). The central viewpoint of my research that runs through the entire body of work is the moment of truthfulness (Habermas, 1995, pp. 588–589), which is also found in the photographic works of the Canadian artist Jeff Wall. 

Remarks | Back to Start

In his text »Three Thoughts on Photography« (Wall, 1999), Wall posits the thesis that only by detaching itself from its »factual claim«, that is the visual assertion of facts, can photography become accepted as an art (cf. Wall, 1999, p. 441). In his essay »Frames of Reference« (Wall, 2003), Wall emphasises that he does not regard his work to be a literal reproduction or a visual one-to-one translation of an object (ibid., p. 445). Having abandoned the initial concept of the mere staging or re-enactment of violent acts (e.g. together with laypeople, actors and dancers), the focus of my artistic research shifted. In the initial phases of the work I increasingly had the feeling that I was abusing the fates of others for my own purposes, in the sense that I was using them as objects of my own projections. Subsequently, I set myself what I presumed would be a simple task: to report the ‘truth’ of things that I had experienced ‘honestly’, without any exaggeration. Since I can only access them as an individual, and thus subjectively, I pledged myself to the mindset of truthfulness in everything I then showed, mentioned, and described. This concept includes disclosing the sources I draw on, and checking my own accounts (to the extent that this was possible for memories) and comparing them with existing historical documents


What effect did the work on this book have on me? Most importantly, I was forced to change the perspective on my personal history and its connection to contemporary history. I had to reconstruct my young self and critically juxtapose it with my 45-year-old self. For this I had to figure out how much self-revelation was necessary for the depiction and conducive to the narration of the life described. It called for constant confrontations with fellow PhD candidates, advisors, colleagues, conference participants and guests of our research group in Zurich, in order to productively shake my original convictions and to continually contribute to building the depth of reflection the chosen topic requires. This kind of constructive criticism and reflection of my position would not have been possible without the structure of the PhD programme. 


It was also important that the work process integrated failure in a positive way. Similar to the composition of a coming-of-age novel, I passed through various levels of development of my already existing or newly acquired skills and was able to include these in the production of the work. Another helpful finding that grew directly from the research process is that a part of my life problems consists in the fact that I have not yet been able to clear up the relationship between me and my father to a sufficient extent, nor to emancipate myself from the often inhibiting factors of this relationship–be it the tendency toward perfectionism and the resulting expectations placed on me, my father’s refusal to acknowledge life-models other than his own, his nearly complete silence about blind spots in his own biography and the lack of reflection about his and my misguided actions. Doing this research had a positive impact on the needed emancipation process. 


In 2015, a year and a half after the official start of my PhD, I became a father myself. This experience significantly changed my perspective. Suddenly, I found myself in similar situations I had experienced earlier with my parents, and especially with my father, as a child or teenager. I began observing myself in this new role from the outside and was surprised to see that I sometimes acted in a similar way as my father. 


One of the main questions regarding the embodiment of the research work was how, and to what degree, it would be possible to make the depicted experiences comprehensible for a broader public. Michael Biggs, British philosopher and professor for aesthetics, states that when one speaks about experiences, it is not possible to evoke in other persons one’s own experience in a certain situation (cf. Biggs, 2006, p. 197). 


Yet, it is possible that those listening to a description of an experience react with sympathy or empathy, depending on their attitude to the description of what happened. Thus they could anticipate things about the discussed experience and feel a kind of »surrogate experience« for themselves (ibid., pp. 197–198). Pirkko Anttila, Finnish designer, university professor and researcher, introduces an »extended concept of knowledge« (Anttila, 2012, p. 120). She advocates, especially with reference to the results of artistic research, that such knowledge should not be expressed exclusively with verbal means; instead, the new concept should contribute to enable the expression of other objective and subjective forms of experience (ibid.). 


So, what is the result of my research? First and foremost, it is the analysis of a biography coupled to a specific historic era, and the attempt to use artistic research as a means to overcome boundaries of thinking, and to build a bridge between the generations of those who experienced sudden social change and those whose time of birth meant that this change was only experienced from afar. My objective was to proceed experimentally to find ways to deal artistically with the problem of suppressing and concealing experiences and its concomitant speechlessness. In the introduction to this book I wrote that we were »thrown into« the specific situation in which so many people found themselves during the rapid, radical transformation of the former GDR society in the early 1990's. Here, I would like to draw attention to an additional aspect that I believe to be especially characteristic of the Wende period for people who experienced the transition from the GDR into reunited Germany: the phenomenon of a migration experience that developed in an unusual way. Normally, people leave their home country when they regard the situation there and their own prospects to be hopeless. In the case of the late GDR, however, the case was rather reversed: a country quite suddenly has »left« its population, who, in turn was compelled to build a new life under completely new conditions, either as emigrants to the West, or as people left behind in East Germany. They had to throw their now obsolete convictions overboard and immediately assimilate themselves into a societal culture that was just becoming established. This kind of profound change does not take place without collateral damage. The rise of an openly right-wing radical party like the Alternative for Germany (AfD) shows that »Wendeschmerz« (‘pain of transformation’) is still deeply entrenched in the people. 


The research work presented here is an attempt to add to the already existing interpretations of the transformative events in the late GDR and in East Germany a new, different, and artistic voice. At a symposium in Tallinn (»Prisms of Silence«, February 2020) a colleague nearly my age, who was also born in East Germany, recently asked me why I was doing this research work. 


I responded to her that the dialogue between Ka and Ischer in my book addresses the question that there is still something dark in the character of Ka that he cannot let go of (see p. 70). I think this observation is accurate, but not only for my alter ego and me.