This essay is a rare glimpse into the alternative publications of East Germany in the 1980s. Through an overview of the magazines of the period, and a close reading of various images, advertisements, and visual poetry within them, this essay underscores the vibrancy of the underground print scene in the last decade of the GDR.
In the 1980s, alternative publications flourished in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), originating in such cities as Berlin, Dresden, Halle, and Leipzig. The energy of the country’s final decade is captured in these underground periodicals, which incorporate a wide assortment of materials (from twine and foil to high-quality printing paper) and employ diverse print modes (including typewriting, silk screen, and lithography) and binding methods (from fine Japanese bindings to staples and brads). While the focus of this article is magazines that exhibit these properties, there are also publications that reflect a basically professional, relatively uniform publishing standard (such as Ariadnefabrik), and even the high-end quality of artists’ books (for example, Sascha Anderson’s Poe Sie Al Bum1Sascha Anderson was a key figure in the underground art scene of the GDR. However, once the Stasi files were opened post-1989, it was discovered that he had used his position to inform on his contemporaries. The Hungarian author Péter Nádas wrote an essay reflecting on this discovery, which is available in English. See Péter Nádas, “Our Poor, Poor Sascha Anderson,” Common Knowledge 8, no. 3 (Fall 2002): 526–47.). Some magazines ran for only a few issues while others lasted several years. They all operated outside of the larger field of state-supported art production in the GDR, however, and were not affiliated with officially sanctioned publishing houses.
Helgard Sauer, a librarian at the Saxon State and University Library (SLUB) in Dresden who began to collect these underground publications pretty much as they were being produced,2In an essay on the unofficial publishing house Leitwolfverlag in Dresden, Caroline Quermann writes that Helgard Sauer was “almost exclusively accountable” for the purchases by the SLUB of “non-conformist publications [which] could not be bought in bookshops.” See Caroline Quermann, “‘The Salad Pig Is Laughing’: Being Free in Absurdistan; On the Leitwolfverlag Publishing House in Dresden,” in Gegenstimmen. Kunst in der DDR 1976–1989/Voices of Dissent: Art in the GDR, 1976–1989, trans. Patrick (Boris) Kremer, exh. cat. (Berlin: Deutsche Gesellschaft, 2016), 529, published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title, which was organized and presented by the Martin-Gropius Bau Berlin, July 16–September 26, 2016. An exhibition of the materials in the collection of the SLUB and an accompanying catalogue were arranged in 1992. See non kon form: Künstlerbücher, Text-Grafik-Mappen und autonome Zeitschriften der DDR 1979–1989 aus der Sammlung der Sächsischen Landesbibliothek Dresden, exh. cat. (Esslingen, Kiel: Galerie der Stadt Esslingen Villa Merkel and Stadtgalerie im Sophienhof Kiel, 1992), published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title, which was organized and presented by the Galerie der Stadt Esslingen Villa Merkel, April 11–May 24, 1992, and the Stadtgalerie im Sophienhof Kiel, June 20–August 16, 1992. later underscored that they operated “independent of the censure,” and that “there were no borders set to artistic creativity by this form of communication.”3Helgard Sauer, “UND, U.S.W., U.S.F. u.a. alternative Künstlerkommunikation in der DDR,” SLB Kurier 5, no. 2 (1991): 2. Unless otherwise noted, all translations from the German are mine. And yet, as she continued, “In the cultural policy of the GDR, such an artists’ exchange [of material for publication] outside state surveillance was not ordained, and thus was regarded as subversive.”4Ibid. Thus, these publications, which Sauer alternatively calls “Künstlerbücher” (artists’ books), “Künstlerzeitschriften” (artist’s magazines), “Kleinzeitschriften” (little magazines), and “alternative Künstlerkommunikation” (alternative artists’ communications), collectively represent one aspect of an art scene in East Germany that managed to exist outside of state-supported structures and to remain relatively unhindered.5Notably absent from Sauer’s nomenclature is the term “samizdat,” which relates to a specific history of underground (largely literary) publishing in Eastern Europe and Russia during the Cold War period. Unofficial publications from East Germany have largely fallen outside of the purview of historical considerations of samizdat. Even in his text titled “Samizdat Literature in the GDR and the Influence of the Stasi,” literary scholar and author Klaus Michael opens with a qualification that “self-published literature in the GDR should not be compared to the samizdat literature of East European countries.” See Klaus Michael, “Samisdat-Literatur in der DDR und der Einfluß der Staatssicherheit,” in Stasi, KGB und Literatur: Beiträge und Erfahrungen aus Russland und Deutschland (Cologne: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, 1993), 158. On the one hand, authors from the GDR were linguistically more inclined to look to their colleagues in West Germany and had the potential to be published there; and on the other, the politics of socialism in the GDR did not necessarily correspond to those in other Eastern bloc countries. As the art historian Christoph Tannert has written—for a catalogue of samizdat books that does indeed include examples from East Germany—“Engagement of visual artists and writers against the socialist regime, as developed in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, did not occur in the GDR.” Christoph Tannert, “Leiche auf der Seziertisch: DDR-Kunst zwischen Staat und Underground,” in Samizdat: Alternative Kultur in Zentral- Und Osteuropa; die 60er Bis 80er Jahre, eds. Ivo Bock et al. (Bremen: Edition Temmen, 2000), 180.
The earliest publications, such as Entwerter Oder and UND (both first published in 1982) and U.S.W., were essentially “assemblings.”6For more on the concept of the assembled magazine, see Zanna Gilbert, “Via Postal: Networked Publications In and Out of Latin America,” in International Perspectives on Publishing Platforms: Image, Object, Text, ed. Meghan Forbes (London: Routledge, 2019), 105–32; Craig J. Saper, Networked Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001); and Stephen Perkins, “Artist’s Periodicals and Alternative Artist’s Networks: 1963–1977” (PhD diss., University of Iowa, May 2003). As Sauer wrote in 1990, “The principle behind these editions is simple: interested artists would send their contributions (text, graphics, collages, photographs, etc.) for the agreed-upon issue to the editor, who assembles the work into publication form and then sends a copy back to the participating artist.”7Sauer, “UND, U.S.W., U.S.F. u.a. alternative Künstlerkommunikation in der DDR,” 1. The wide range of print and publication processes employed, and the creative use of materials, seemingly as both a matter of economy and a means of experimentation, were integral to the particular aesthetics of the GDR underground magazines. The publications I will focus on here are precisely those that embrace an aesthetic of scarcity and “deformation,” and that pose their assembled and irregular contents not as limited by material circumstances, but rather as incredibly dynamic objects enriched by haptic, textual, and visual qualities.
The magazine Der Schaden exemplifies deformation as an intentional artistic practice, a notion embodied in the publication’s name, which translates as “damage” or “loss.” Its text is mostly typewritten on tissue paper, and in samizdat fashion, has been reproduced using carbon paper.8The scholar H. Gordon Skilling sites various definitions of samizdat ranging from “‘typewritten copies, transferred by hand’” to “‘unapproved material reproduced unofficially . . . by hand, typewriter, mimeograph or occasionally by Xerography’.” H. Gordon Skilling, Samizdat and an Independent Society in Central and Eastern Europe (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989), 6, 240fn21. The cover of issue ten (1986) is a collage of painted tissue paper, and the pages are bound together with five staples unevenly spaced along its length, about a half an inch from the left-hand side, and sewn through with twine. In issue twelve, also from 1986, poems are stamped directly onto foil paper, rendering them nearly illegible. Elsewhere, black carbon paper has been inserted, and thus the very material aiding in reproducing the publication is a feature of its contents.
When I was in Dresden in January of this year, I had the opportunity to visit the SLUB and to see firsthand Der Schaden and a few other magazines. There was not sufficient time to study the full collection, which the library has also digitized,9See Deutsche Fotothek, http://www.deutschefotothek.de/cms/kuenstlerzeitschriften.xml. These publications are catalogued by the SLUB under the category of “artists’ magazines” or “little magazines” (Künstlerzeitschriften or Kleinzeitschriften). In addition to visiting the SLUB, I had the opportunity to view a smaller collection of such materials at the Kunstbibliothek (KuBi) in Berlin in June 2018 through the C-MAP research initiative at MoMA. I extend my thanks to Michael Lailach at the KuBi and Simone Fleischer at the SLUB for their kind assistance in accessing the periodicals discussed in this essay, as well as to Bettina Erlenkamp for providing the images included in this article from the SLUB’s collection. but the following preliminary notes and observations mark the beginning of what I hope will become a larger research project. I aim to explore in the short space of this essay the place these magazines occupy in the history of underground publishing behind the Iron Curtain, and some of the ways in which they function as a record of art created in the GDR leading up to and just following the fall of the Berlin Wall. As the examples below will illustrate, these publications, fascinating material objects in their own right, also comprise a historical archive of the East German art scene as it was playing out—of the punk scene, gallery installations, and various performances that were taking place contemporaneously.
The hodge-podge, DIY, and interdisciplinary approach of the underground art world in East Germany is reflected in the look and content of its publications. In a short text on the “unofficial” and “non-licensed” print magazines from the GDR, Ilona Schäkel emphasizes both their textual and visual components, noting that with regards to the “collaboration of different artists and media in one collective creative process, border crossing and multimediality were significant characteristics of the young art of the GDR in general.”10Ilona Schäkel, “Reizwolf und Herzattacke: Inoffizielle originalgraphische Zeitschriften aus der DRR,” in Samizdat, 188–89. Emphasis mine. Sauer also details the varied contents of these publications, which include “graphic arts, typography, visual poetry, photography, happenings, performance, and Fluxus,”11Helgard Sauer, “Künstlerbücher: Ein Sammelgebiet des Sächsischen Landesbibliothek,” SLB Kurier 4, no. 2 (1990): 2. and comments on the connection between this multimedial diversity and how the print publications were organically integrated into the larger, variegated art scene: “Besides the publication of the magazine issues, readings, round tables, exhibitions and also concerts were organized. This combination of different possibilities for art communication is characteristic of the multimedial development of art in the eighties in the GDR.”12Sauer, “UND, U.S.W., U.S.F. u.a. alternative Künstlerkommunikation in der DDR,” 2. A single issue of one of these magazines might include, for instance, photographic documentation, advertisements, and reviews of exhibitions in Berlin, Dresden, or Leipzig, the combination evoking the vibrancy of the underground art scene in the late 1980s and serving as invaluable primary documentation for anyone conducting research on it today.
One artist who played a key role in recording the underground culture of East Germany was the photographer Karin Wieckhorst, who still based in Leipzig, was the subject of a retrospective at the Museum der bildenden Künste there last summer. Anschlag 6 features a taped-together triptych of her photographs, which when unfolded, reveals three scenes from the staging of Lutz Dammbeck’s REALfilm, a so-called media collage, from May 14, 1986.13Anschlag is another magazine that, based in Leipzig, showcases the creative “deformation” of these publications. This is perhaps nowhere more stunningly captured than on the cover of issue 6, made from collaged sandpaper and bound with duct tape and brads. In this same issue, there is an interview with the artist Angela Hampel, and a drawing by her of a naked punk woman with a Mohawk who is brandishing a snake. These examples, among others, suggest the immersive involvement of women in the GDR art scene, even though they were in the minority and have not been prominent in recent histories and exhibitions.14Wieckhorst’s retrospective in Leipzig last year, and another recent exhibition at the Albertinum in Dresden entitled The Medea Insurrection: Radical Women Behind the Iron Curtain, are notable exceptions to this oversight. This latter exhibition will travel to the Wende Museum in Los Angelesin fall 2019. See Susanne Altmann et al., eds., Medea muckt auf. Radikale Künstlerinnen hinter dem Eisernen Vorhang / The Medea Insurrection: Radical Women Artists behind the Iron Curtain, exh. cat. (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2019). Wieckhorst, an essential documentarian of the art world in which she participated, also lays bare a less represented history of the GDR—that of the sheer number of female participants in this scene (even if they are still sidelined). This is something her exhibition in Leipzig last year—in a series of portraits of fellow artists, many of whom are women—made abundantly clear. See Karin Wieckhorst: Begegnungen (Leipzig: Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig, 2018), published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title, organized and presented by the Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig, June 6–September 2, 2018.
The previous issue of Anschlag, which has a black vinyl cover, includes another photograph by Wieckhorst, this one of a punk woman in a leather jacket and spiked dog collar, who, cigarette in hand, is having her shaved head caressed by a man with a Mohawk, who wears a chain belt and black bandana. It is both an intimate portrait of two young people looking impossibly cool, and documentation of the crowd at a significant event: Intermedia 1, a two-day happening that took place in Coswig on June 1–2, 1985, and was advertised as a “Klangbild/Farbklang.”15Christoph Tannert has written in more detail about Intermedia I with (uncredited) photo-documentation. See “‘Intermedia I’ in Coswig 1985,” in Ohne uns! Kunst & alternative Kultur in Dresden vor und nach ’89, eds. Paul Kaiser and Claudia Petzold, exh. cat. (Dresden: efau-Verlag, 2009), published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title, organized and presented by Prager Spitze, Motorenhalle, Gedankstätte Bautzner Strasse, Lichthof im Rathaus, Dresden, September 24, 2009–January 17, 2010. Referencing the dualism of sound and image, Klangbild/Farbklang translates as something like “Colorscape/Color sound.” In the background of the photograph, one can see hand-painted “Rollos” (roller blinds, or shades), a popular painting surface in the GDR because the cheap household objects could easily be stored and discreetly transported.16Examples of Rollos by Christine Schlegel were on display in The Medea Insurrection. Apparently there were more than forty of these Rollos installed in Coswig for the event, which also featured jazz, “Hard Pop,” “Tanz und Projektion” (dance and projections), and “Musikbrigade” concerts.
An invaluable record of the happening is captured in a publication titled Intermedia, which was billed as a special issue of U.S.W. and served as a catalogue for the event. At the back of the issue, there is an envelope containing seventeen black-and-white photographs of the installed Rollos, and a list of the artists who participated. The bound contents comprise photos of the event’s performers and audience members in action, including more images by Karin Wieckhorst.
Another set of photographs from Intermedia is by Else Gabriel, one of four members of the artists’ group known as the Auto-Perforationists.17The group was comprised of four artists: Micha Brendel, Else Gabriel, Rainer Görß, and Via Lewandowsky. Gabriel was the only female member. Gabriel participated in many GDR happenings during the eighties, including, perhaps most famously, Allez! Arrest! with Micha Brendel and Rainer Görß, as part of the exhibition After Beuys at the prominent East German GALERIE EIGEN + ART in Leipzig.18For more on Allez! Arrest! and other performances, including Intermedia, see Sara Blaylock, “Performing the Subject, Claiming Space: Performance Art in 1980s East Germany,” post, August 1, 2017, https://post.at.moma.org/content_items/1035-performing-the-subject-claiming-space-performance-art-in-1980s-east-germany. Allez! Arrest!, which took place over ten days in the spring of 1988, was also documented in several alternative magazines. Wieckhorst was again on the scene, and her series of black-and-white photographs, which are reproduced in Anschlag 10,19The extraordinarily unusual cover of this issue is comprised of a Grillkorb, or small basket used for grilling fish. My thanks to Christian Rattemeyer for identifying this object for me. capture aspects of what was a multifaceted event including installations, concerts, and performance art. Extensive textual detail about Allez! Arrest! is provided in articles by artist Olaf Nicolai, art historian Dirk Schümann, and gallerist Judy Lybke, and Gabriel herself contributed a multipage schedule of events. The happening is documented in a special photography issue of Entwerter Oder, and its representation in these various publications has, no doubt, been a factor in its relative visibility within the history of GDR art today.
Production of these publications petered out after 1989 (though, as Sauer notes, this period also marked an uptick in library requests to view the publications).20Sauer, “UND, U.S.W., U.S.F. u.a. alternative Künstlerkommunikation in der DDR,” 3. Common Sense, published in only two issues in 1989 and 1990 in Halle, documents this period of transition in real time. The first issue is stunningly creative in its execution, with sewn-in, glued, and torn-paper elements, collage, blind letterpress printing, lengthier articles, and tiny visual poems. The combination lends a DIY element to the publication, which was nevertheless professionally bound by the Buchbinderei Steffen Stolze (today apparently still operational in the town of Hettstedt).
The opening pages of the first issue of Common Sense feature a black-and-white photograph by Ernst Goldberg of a slogan that, painted on a wall, reads “35 Jahre DDR” (35 Years of the GDR). But the image has been altered, with the number 35 slashed out in red paint, and the number 40 painted next to it. Though the issue came out in 1989, it does not anticipate the fall of the Berlin Wall, which took place soon after, on November 9, 1989. When the second and final issue of Common Sense—dubbed an “Edition Augenweide” (Eyesore Edition)—was published after German reunification, the moment of transition is naturally central to the contents. In an introduction, now typed on a computer and signed “November 1990,” Jörg Kowalski, one of the editors, looks back over the year since the border wall was dismantled and asks, “What right to still exist do alternative, independent book projects now have?”21Jörg Kowalski, “Common Sense 90,” in Common Sense 2 (1990): unpaginated, http://www.deutschefotothek.de/documents/obj/85 It would seem a somewhat facetious question as, indeed, Common Sense was still alive and kicking as he wrote. In general, the second issue looks like the first—again, various papers and printing processes have been employed, a haiku is paperclipped in, and collage and torn-paper elements are features. But this issue of the publication would also be the last, and a closer look at its contents reveals how it reflects upon the change of state. On one page, in a work titled “AKTeneinSICHT” (Record Inspection), Henry Günther has effaced what appears to be his Stasi file, rendering the Xeroxed text nearly illegible with thick black lines. Elsewhere, an advertisement for a “GDR Flea market” is pasted in, calling on “Friends from East Germany” to sell their belongings and handicrafts “for hard German marks” in the days and months just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Kowalski has emphasized the words “handicrafts” and “sell” by highlighting them in pen, stamped the words “Found Poetry” below the leaflet, and signed his name.22The same stamp is used regularly in publications associated with Kowalski and the Chilean artist Guillermo Deisler (discussed below). Another notable example of this tendency to repeat certain images across publications is Deisler’s own artist’s book, Found Poetry: Boundary for Blinds. In a work by Hans-Georg Sehrt called “Ein Gespenst ging um” (A Ghost Was Here), a tatter of the East German flag has been pasted into a visual poem of repeating letters of the alphabet.
Kowalski was also an editor of UNI/vers(;), another Halle-based publication that continued well into the period of German Reunification. Advertised at the back of the first issue of Common Sense, it is described as “the international forum for new tendencies in visual poetry,” and purported to have editors from the GDR, Chile, and France—contesting an essentialist notion that artists operating in East Germany were not part of an international network. But equally or even more importantly, the magazine, which operated from 1987 through 1995, transmitted information and forged connections within the underground art scene of the GDR. The MoMA Library has a full set of UNI/vers(;) among its holdings, bringing the Museum, at least modestly, into the history of collecting alternative publications from the East Germany.23My thanks to Felipe Ignacio Becerra for pointing out that UNI/vers(;) is in the MoMA Library collection. There are a few other items in the MoMA Library related to alternative publishing in the GDR, which came as part of a larger gift from the Franklin Furnace collection. See, in particular, Eisenbahnerehrenwort (Dresden: Leitwolfverlag, 1991), which includes an essay by Helgard Sauer, https://arcade.nyarc.org/search~S8?/Xfranklin+furna
As the galactic scope of its name suggests, UNI/vers(;) perhaps most fully represents a more international frame within which to consider the East German alternative publications. Three collaborators in addition to Kowalski are associated with the early issues: Gregorio Berchenko, Ulrich Tarlatt, and Guillermo Deisler. Deisler, who made his way to Halle from Chile via France and Bulgaria, was the main progenitor of the project, and it is to his address that potential contributors were instructed to send submissions. Active at the tail end of the movement, UNI/vers(;) fits within the Fluxus, mail art networks active between Latin America and Central Europe.24See Gilbert, “Via Postal.” There are also several texts commissioned or contributed by Gilbert for post on this topic. See, for example, Vanessa K. Davidson, “Mail Art as ‘A Necessary Necessity’: Edgardo Antonio Vigo’s Writings, 1975–1981,” post, April 29, 2014, https://post.at.moma.org/content_items/449-mail-art-as-a-necessary-necessity-edgardo-antonio-vigo-s-writings-1975-1981; Zanna Gilbert, “The Afterlives of Mail Art: Felipe Ehrenberg’s Poetic Systems,” post, January 30, 2014, https://post.at.moma.org/content_items/391-the-afterlives-of-mail-art-felipe-ehrenberg-s-poetic-systems; and Mauricio Marcin, “Mail Art from Mexico (via the world): An Erratic Investigation,” post, December 12, 2013, https://post.at.moma.org/content_items/314-mail-art-from-mexico-via-the-world-an-erratic-investigation. On the topic of East German mail art, in particular, see Friedrich Winnes and Lutz Wohlrab, eds., Mail Art Szene DDR, 1975–1990(Berlin: Haude and Spener, 1994). Described as a “portfolio,” each issue features the work of approximately forty artists. The magazine was typically packaged in a carton casing with a collaged cover and bound in twine, though there is some variation, as in the first issue, which was tucked into brown paper and sealed at the top with metal brads.25Reproductions of the covers of all thirty-five issues of UNI/vers(;) are included in Mariana Deisler Coll, Paulina Varas Alarcón, and Francisca García, Archivo Guillermo Deisler: Textos e imágenes en acción (Santiago: Ocholibros, 2012), 124–25. Potential contributors to a particular issue were instructed (as in the advert in Common Sense) to send one hundred distinct copies of their work to Deisler for inclusion; submissions typically came from Europe, but others hailed from Latin America, the United States, Australia, and Japan. The contents were packaged together as distinct, loose items. In terms that parallel Sauer’s description of the 1980s GDR alternative publications cited earlier in this essay, UNI/vers(;) claimed to “offer an opportunity, without influence, censor, or restriction, to bring together artistic originals. In the best of cases, these are works of simultaneous poetry, CO/ART, or a collective, poetic form, that cut across distance to reach each other.”26Uni/vers(;): peacedream-project (1987–1992), Künstlerprojeckt für Visuelle und Experimentelle Poesie, exh. cat. (Halle: Poetry factory, 1992), unpaginated, published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title, which was organized and presented at the Galerie am Markt Annaberg-Buchholz, October 10–November 9, 1992. The exhibition was organized by Brigitta Milde, who has recently explored the relationship between Deisler and the East German artist Carlfriedrich Claus. See “Interview: Brigitta Milde in Conversation with Lynn Rother on Carlfriedrich Claus,” post, December 12, 2018, https://post.at.moma.org/content_items/1229-interview-brigitta-milde-in-conversation-with-lynn-rother-on-carlfriedrich-claus. This statement again emphasizes the lack of censorship as a creative mode by which to produce and propagate alternative art and poetry, which, in the case of UNI/vers(;)truly represents a simultaneously international and translocal network.
Thanks to the preservation of the various publications discussed here in such locations as the SLUB in Dresden and the Kunstbibliothek in Berlin, and to a lesser extent, the MoMA Library, an international group of interested researchers continues to have access to this primary documentation, and thus the capacity to learn more about a neglected aspect of German art history. It remains to be further considered how a better accommodation of East German printed matter in the overall history of German art practices of the late twentieth century might in turn adjust the existing discourse in the more established field. The digitization of many of these magazines by the SLUB is an invaluable resource, but there is no substitute for experiencing the deeply haptic qualities of these uncanny publications in person. More frequent exhibition of these materials would be a welcome approach.