Underground art scene in GDR Erfurt: It’s tingling under the files

Underground art scene in GDR Erfurt: It’s tingling under the files

A book by the artist Gabriele Stötzer shows how a subculture in Erfurt stood between self-empowerment and repression during the GDR era.

A series of black-and-white images shows people entering a gallery entrance.  It's surveillance footage

Photo series of the state security from the front door of the Erfurt gallery in the hallway, printed in the book Photo: (c) Spector Books Leipzig, 2022

November 17, 1976. Gabriele Stötzer types the petition against Wolf Biermann’s expatriation on her typewriter and is the first to sign it. She is arrested the night before she wants to take the list to East Berlin. It is her first personal contact with the state security. Until 1989, she was observed, de-registered and imprisoned in four trials. She was in the Hoheneck women’s prison for 12 months, after which she ran an underground gallery that was liquidated in 1981.

Her women’s punk band Extended Orgasmus (EOG) rehearses in Erfurt’s cellars. In 1984 she initiated a group of female artists – at that time unique in the GDR – which combined concepts of female self-empowerment, collectivity and social criticism in Super 8 films, photographs, performances, fashion object shows and manifestos.

These artistic alternatives did not go unnoticed by the Stasi either. For Gabriele Stötzer has an exhibition researched the role of the Stasi in the Erfurt subculture between the 1960s and 80s: “It was necessary to rip my life out of their hands (the State Security), to rob them of their strength by looking them in the face.”

32 actors from art and literature agreed to Stötzer inspecting their files and publishing their research. Her resulting book, “The Long Arm of the Stasi” impressively describes the reality of the GDR – also thanks to the conceptual and creative implementation. 60 people are introduced with photographs.

A web of friendships and surveillance

The short texts in the marginal columns, written by co-author and editor Anne König, locate them in the scene. A web of friendships, love, cooperation and surveillance is woven between the images. Because from side to side the question arises: informer or not?

The disguise actions of the artists are shown on a series of colored pictures, they are also printed in the book

The actions of the Erfurt artists’ group, spreadsheet from the book “The long arm of the Stasi” Photo: (c) Spector Books Leipzig, 2022

Even though she was affected herself, Stötzer succeeds in conveying the different forms of observation objectively in her texts. Last but not least, a glossary of terms in the appendix also makes it tangible for future generations how the Stasi not only checked a person, but also their immediate surroundings, including jobs and universities: “You feel like an infectious patient, everyone with whom you were in contact , infected.”

Gabriele Stötzer writes openly and honestly. She was afraid that she was even physically sick while researching the book. Photos of the actions of the Erfurt scene are in stark contrast to the reproductions from the files. These testify to the comprehensive surveillance: Observation images show Stötzer on her daily walks in and out of the apartment, alongside a floor plan of the apartment and a photograph of the house.

Once the Stasi threaded the Encounter with a transvestite a. He was supposed to encourage them to take pornographic pictures that could have been used to criminalize them. But Stötzer made a model out of him. The work is now one of her most important from this period.

Different identities in self-designed costumes

A chapter is dedicated to women in Erfurt. They meet in apartments and discuss their vision of a self-determined life. The first music is created with lids, pots and lamps. In self-designed costumes, they take on different female identities on.

They are self-taught. They don’t want to leave the GDR, they find support in the Erfurt punk scene, sometimes also in the evangelical church. The early actors include Monika Andres, Verena Kyselka, Monique Förster, Gabriele Göbel, Ina Heyner, Ingrid Plöttner, Elke Karl and Harriet Wollert.

From 1986 onwards, the Erfurt artists’ group produced an experimental film every year, for example in “Komik-Komisch” (1988) they performed absurd sequences of movements on the roofs of the city. The films were the focus of the exhibition “Pants have skirts on” at the Berlin nGbK last year. For the first time, this gave an insight into the little-known feminist subculture of the GDR using original materials and costumes.

As in that exhibition, letters and files in the book also bear witness to their constant surveillance. The partner of one of the women supported the group with amplifiers and microphones, but also reported on art events as an unofficial collaborator (IM) and passed on private details such as divorces and illnesses. There was demonstrably no female IM in the group.

All the IMs with no names and faces

On December 4, 1989, Gabriele Stötzer was one of the women who gave the go-ahead for the peaceful occupation of the Stasi district building in Erfurt. “All the IMs and official employees still have no names and no faces,” she writes, encouraging people to look at the files. “In this way, peace can be established within us, which helps us to stay awake and see behind the masks of time.”

In the summer of 2019, she rang the man who put her in jail. The memorandum of that encounter printed in the book concludes this piece of contemporary history. It is also a piece of art history.

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