Review of Parallel Public: Experimental Art in Late East Germany
 | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Review of Parallel Public: Experimental Art in Late East Germany

Parallel Public: Experimental Art in Late East Germany

by Sara Blaylock

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2022

328 pp., illus. 81 b/w. Trade, $34.95

ISBN: 9780262046633.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
September 2022

Parallel Public is an important and truly thought-provoking contribution to the study of the art and life of the avant-garde in a non-Western and non-capitalist country, the former German Democratic Republic. The book should be read in tandem with Sarah E. James’s Paper Revolutions: An Invisible Avant-Garde (reviewed here in June 2022), even if this new publication has a totally different take on the GDR avant-garde. It foregrounds indeed another generation, that of the young artists coming to the fore in the 1980s, the first ones to be born “into” the communist system and aggressively opposed to it, which was not the case of the first GDA avant-gardists, while also living in a decade in which this system had started to dissolve and would eventually collapse. It also foregrounds forms of art that avoid the traditional genre and medium boundaries, namely performance and intermedia art. Finally, it looks very carefully at the key feature of GDR’s cultural life, the impact of an intrusive and massively present state control, yet not as something that is naively opposed to avant-garde but as a force that actually makes it possible. Blaylock’s approach is extremely innovative in this regard, for she includes fascinating close-readings of Stasi reports made by “unofficial collaborators”, all methodically spying on each other, not in the least in the avant-garde circles themselves, as well as endlessly sending detailed yet not always very clear reports to the ministry. Sara Blaylock gives a brilliant, attractively illustrated, and very well written overview of these avant-garde activities, highlighting the work of the most imports artists in the various intermedia and performance scenes (with a very welcome emphasis on the work by female artists, reacting against the hypocrisies of the official gender equality policies) as well as the venues and structures, in Berlin as well as in other, even very small local centers, that enabled them to both create and display their work. It is the specific approach of the relationship between this multi-faceted avant-garde production and the cultural, economic, political, bureaucratic, and ideological constraints that represents both the fundamental research hypothesis and the most stimulating innovation of the book. The word “parallel” in the title designates a twofold reality, an internal and an external one. It identifies in the first place the specific place of the avant-garde under scrutiny in the internal GDR context. This very special avant-garde could indeed only burgeon next to the highly idealizing and streamlining official socialist ideology? However, “next to” does not mean “in the shadow of” or “unrelated to.” GDR’s social realism was not realist in the mimetic, Western sense of the word but an endeavor to instrumentalize idealized role models and representations to help citizens evolve into socially responsible individuals, capable of building their own lives while at the same time eager to build with their fellow citizens a new socialist society. Art and culture played a vital role in this social engineering, as demonstrated by the many privileges given to artists, all well-paid members of the official artist associations, and the considerable financial and logistic means devoted to the construction and maintenance of a tight network of specialized venues and institutions, both for the artists and for their audiences (and we shouldn’t forget: all that in a society characterized by a crude lack of many elementary consumer and technological goods). Blaylock meticulously discloses the fact that avant-garde or alternative culture in the GDR is misunderstood if one reduces it to a kind of samizdat culture. Even if the GDR avant-garde became increasingly critical of the political system–it should be repeated that on this point, the analysis of this book is totally different from what Sarah E. James showed for the elder generations, more sympathetic to the GDR ideology, mainly due to their personal experiences under Nazism––, it was anything except an underground culture, actively censored or persecuted by the police and the authorities. Instead, it was a culture that was directly produced by the GDR institutions themselves and their officially salaried and protected artists who found in the system the very openings that allowed them to create nonmainstream work and challenge the political agenda of the state. To explain this astonishing liberty, Blaylock mentions of course the inevitable tension between the artists’ natural pursuit of freedom and the reactionary demands of the state. However, she particularly insists on the elements that set the GDR apart from all other Soviet-dominated counties (not to speak of Russia itself). On the one hand, there was the strong state-supported desire to show that the country was capable of competing with its big Western neighbor, offering its citizens new ways of obtaining personal autonomy and showing new ways of reinventing the authentic German identity, hence the encouragement not to shy away from artistic experiments. On the other hand, there was also, and most importantly, the relative weakness of the state, which did not have a clear idea of how to define cultural innovation, hence the larger tolerance to critical artists than to politically motivated agitators; hence also the popularity of performance of intermedia practices, which escaped all genre- and medium-based state regulations. The fundamental reason of the state’s weakness was however that the GDR administration had to rely on a repressive institution, the Stasi, whose supposed or imaginary power was not as strong as many in the West continue to think it was, hence the clearly documented problems of the GDR to censor or even hinder much of the avant-garde work made by its critical artists. Blaylock gives many examples of open mockery and parody of the Stasi, which are a real eye-opener. She also makes clear that a lot of Stasi informants do not believe in their own reports, many of them proving totally ineffectual. This is a very strong point, and one that goes against the grain of any Manichean views of the solitary artist or citizen as helpless victim of ruthless bureaucratic despotism (Blaylock calls this the “Hollywood view” of the GDR). Obviously, Parallel Public does not dissimilate the terrible violence exerted the terror of the state against its own citizens (intimidation, administrative and bureaucratic hassle, economic sanctions, imprisonment, in extreme cases even torture, always with painfully well documented examples). At the same time, however, the book also documents in a very detailed manner the incapacity of the state to stop artists and their public, even before the 1980s. The almost immediate vanishing of GDR avant-garde after the disappearance of the country itself is a powerful argument in favor of this thesis: no GDR art without GDR. Avant-garde born in the GDR did no longer feel the necessity to maintain its project once the state it challenged was no longer there, and the new capitalist environment destroyed the financial and logistic basis that had offered avant-garde artists the time and space to develop their critical work. In the New Germany, there was no other choice left: adapt, and become commercial, or perish. All this brings us to the second, external meaning of “parallel”: not parallel to official culture, but parallel to other, that is Western forms of avant-garde. Here as well, the position of Blaylock is very refreshing. Rather then examining GDR art in light of styles and tendencies in the West, which claimed the privilege to be the place where history was made, Blaylock stresses the need to study non-Western art in its own right, no longer a periphery and a somewhat pitiful belated answer to Western trends and models, but an autonomous system with its own logic and stakes. In that sense, taking the GDR as an exemplary case study should help fight universalizing visions on “world” culture. Parallel Public looks into completely different directions, which will prove dramatically inspiring in the years to come, now that the “one world” belief is also collapsing in the turmoil of history.