Photo: Evren Zeytinogl.

Interviews 1989 as Utopia. elske rosenfeld on politics and longing

Elske Rosenfeld was 15 when the Berlin Wall came down. She realized that this was the end of the critical discourse that the citizens’ movements had brought to life in the GDR. When the 1990 election results were announced in the media, she cried. Today the topic of 1989 is her professional project as an artist.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 39-41, Vol 1 2011
Published on on April 11, 2011

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it is 1968. a woman is standing outside the gates of a french factory, surrounded by fellow workers after the end of a weeklong strike. i am sitting in an oslo cinema in 2007 and i do not understand her words in french. i do see her despair though, and her rage, i see the mouths of the men trying to talk her down, paternal arms trying gently to push her back into the factory, to her assigned place, to bring her to reason, make her accept the realities of life. the woman shouts and rants and i do not understand a word and yet i understand it all. because her rage and her pain and her reluctance to return to a normality — whose terms she briefly thought she could negotiate or even change, but can’t — are mine. it is march 1990 and i lie under my desk with the radio on, listening to reason trying to talk utopia down to the realities of life. and i cry.

Elske Rosenfeld, 2007

In official historical consciousness, and perhaps particularly the consciousness of the outside world, Helmut Kohl’s 1990 election victory symbolizes the reunification of the two Germanies. But for the then 15-year-old Elske Rosenfeld, that election result marked the end of a life-changing political emancipation, the end of a political discussion that differed so dramatically both from what had prevailed previously and from what came after that it still has not loosened its grip on her.

Like other children born in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the 1970s, Elske grew up in a system that was already coming apart at the seams, at a time when the ideology that sustained the state had lost its power to convince broad segments of the population. She calls herself and her contemporaries a Grenzgängergeneration, a generation that bears the stamp of the system and, in equal measure, of its fall and what came after — the GDR’s last teenagers. About the same time as West German young people were covering the walls of their rooms with posters of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, and other pop icons, the students at Elske’s school were wearing prominent Gorbachev pins.

We arranged to meet in Treptow, where she let herself be photographed in front of one of the few still intact watchtowers that flanked the Berlin Wall. The tower once served as a “command post” for the East German border guards; today it houses a studio. In the summer of 2010, Elske carried out an investigative art project in this space: Watchtower/Ghosts: About the (Im)Possibility of Speaking about 89. She lives nearby, in Kreuzberg, but is currently commuting between Berlin and Vienna, where she is a participant in the PhD in Practice program at the Academy of Fine Arts. We finally end up in one of the many cafés that have sprung from the ground like mushrooms in recent years, all of them decorated like living rooms from the 1950s. Here we laugh together at her remembrance of how the then Soviet president was considered cool by the teenagers in Halle, the largest city in Saxony—Anhalt. Today Elske is not certain whether she would describe herself as a typical East German, after having spent so much of her adult life living abroad. She nonetheless believes that there is something that connects them all, particularly those who were there in 1989. It is a capacity and an aptitude to scrutinize how political systems lay claim to being the only normality. It was this wariness that led Elske to leave the reunified Germany in the early 1990s. But let us start before the caesura, before 1989.

“I grew up feeling different from the system”, she replies when I ask her about her childhood. In the next breath, she adds that she does not know whether this phenomenon is typical of the GDR, or whether someone from a left-wing background might perhaps have experienced something similar in West Germany. Elske was born in 1974, into a family that emphasized the importance of children being able to speak freely. There was relative consensus among those around her in the 1980s that the propaganda, the way in which the system spoke to the people, had lost its legitimacy. This fact did not escape the children. Elske describes something that I have heard from other children of the 1970s as well, namely an early awareness that there were two ways to talk and that it was essential to be able to distinguish between them, to know where and when certain things could be said. Obviously it is difficult, in hindsight, to put a finger on how you learned this. A friend of mine said that it was like sex: children know what it is, despite the reluctance of their parents to explain the details. Elske speaks of this awareness as a skill that you acquired as a small child, saying that it is an attitude that characterizes a person’s perceptions of the surrounding world.

Her parents sent Elske to a special school, known for its relatively non-doctrinaire structure — a place where no one needed to be afraid of being stigmatized for expressing critical views. Like many other young people in the GDR, she was active in the church, for social and political reasons rather than religious ones. She became politicized early on by the peace and environmental movements, and it is as a member of these critical communities that she experienced the Wende, the collapse of the communist system and the dissolution of East Germany. The process of political liberation accelerated during the fall of 1989. Elske got involved, handing out flyers for the Neues Forum; in addition, she organized political groups and discussions. At school, it had suddenly become possible to talk to the teachers about their party membership, about the curriculum, about how they wanted to learn — and live — together.

“This was the moment we stopped having two different ‘linguistic worlds’ — one way of talking versus another. This difference simply dissolved into thin air, and talking began to cross over this frontier, in terms of both people and content. In the fall of 1989, we no longer had the feeling that power lay with the Others, that although we could speak, it had no effect. Talking actually took place in public, and under the premise that it could have real-life consequences in the way people live together. That made the feeling very strong. It was this phase that characterizes 1989 for me — and still does today”, she notes.

Elske was 15 when the Berlin Wall came down. She realized that this was the end of the critical discourse that the citizens’ movements had brought to life in the GDR. When the 1990 election results were announced in the media, she cried.

“That this openness was no longer possible after the wall had fallen was a trauma that has left its mark on me — the feeling of political participation and freedom, which for me was absolutely convincing, evaporated very quickly. I remember that my parents were thrilled that there were free elections — although they voted for the citizens’ movement rather than the CDU. For me, though, it was the end of the exciting time. After that, a different phase began, in which the basic feeling was one of being overpowered by the West, as well as an astonishment that now there was another system that, once again, wanted to say what is good and right — yet again a system that works on the premise that it can set itself up as the natural form of social existence.”

Elske left Germany as soon as she graduated from secondary school. She could not stand the paternalistic reeducation which young people were expected to subject themselves to; nor could she stand to watch as the social safety net was torn asunder. In the early 1990s, a sort of gold-digger mentality prevailed among West German investors and businessmen seeking success in the former East Germany. What the 18-year-old fled was a violent metamorphosis to capitalism.

“It was simply a crazy time. I had the feeling they wanted to open up people’s heads to take out the old and replace it with a new story. We were not seen as individuals who had very clearly emancipated ourselves from the state organization. The fact that 1989 was a huge emancipatory experience was underestimated. This misconception, or simply the fact that its importance was not recognized, has stayed with me ever since — also because I still don’t see this as being solved in dealing with ‘the East’.”

Rosenfeld subsequently lived in London, Liverpool, and Edinburgh. She traveled to the US. She sought out the mental images that she had associated with the big, wide world as a teenager in the GDR, the art scene and cultural flows of different countries: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the legacy of Woodstock. Hip-hop. Foucault, poststructuralism, feminism. She “repeated 1968”, as she now puts it. And she regained a measure of the self-determination that had no place during the West German reshaping of the GDR in the early 1990s. When she finally did return, she made her experiences in 1989 the focus of her artistic endeavors.

You made the topic of 1989 your professional project — what was your motivation and your concern in doing this?

“I did it in fact because I needed to deal with this experience — however broken-off it was — and not just ignore it. My concern was therefore purely personal. To put it in simple psychological terms, it’s a question of dealing with the traumatization created by the sudden breaking off of this emancipatory experience. Since this situation can’t be restored in the present day, I have to work on the next best thing, in order to get at that energy once again; I also have to try to establish discussions or communities relating to it. I use artistic methods to access the parts of my experience that lie beyond the range of speech. Therefore I often refer to the image of the French woman on strike in 1968. By means of this picture, I can explain what otherwise takes place on an emotional plane and can’t be captured in words. To a certain extent, this woman expresses much more about 1989 than any original document — though I also work with those. However, I have problems defining myself as an artist, or author, or curator, or theorist …  these are all categories that don’t apply, because I don’t define myself by a profession but by the topic, and I also find my methodology through the topic. My loyalty is not to art but to the topic ‘1989’.”

Among other things, you have worked toward the concept of “Homesickness for 1989” that you created yourself — what kind of feeling is that?

“I coined this concept in opposition to the idea of homesickness for the GDR — for it has nothing to do with that. What I miss is the experience of great political involvement and freedom. The elections of 1990 put an end to this feeling of having an influence on the way society is structured, but the feeling lives on in me as an ideal. And it isn’t necessarily only possible to experience it in this special, we might say, revolutionary, situation: it is a utopia in the best sense of the word. For me, 1989 is what communism was, perhaps, for many leftists. But this utopia doesn’t represent any political practice — it is not a model for society. It is clear from the beginning that this feeling will be only a short-term condition. What processes a society would have to use to implement it afterward would be an entirely different question.”

Do you sometimes wonder: What would I be or who would I be, if it had continued?

“No, funnily enough. It’s really over. Perhaps that sounds odd after having said how much its being over so quickly traumatized and shocked me. Meanwhile, however, I think that it was simply too late to achieve anything structural that would have been rooted in the grounding notion of communism. The country had hit bottom, not only economically, but above all ideologically. If criticism had been able to be integrated into the system in the sixties, then something interesting might have happened. But that was twenty years before my time, twenty years in which the critical voices had themselves become greatly alienated from the seats of power. On the other hand, naturally I am furious about how it happened. Naturally I am furious about the West German government’s wheeling and dealing with the leading lights of the SED (the Socialist Unity Party of Germany), excluding the citizens’ movements, so as to bring about unity quickly, no matter what. This carried over into the whole economic restructuring. Capitalism was simply established as quickly as possible, by hook or by crook, as it were. And nothing, not even as a corrective measure, flowed, conversely, into the West. That makes me angry — and it was simply straightforward power politics, not a historical necessity.”

To what extent did the GDR, or, rather, your experiences in the GDR, shape your relationship to politics?

“On the one hand, it was shaped through the experience of 1989 as an ideal, or utopia. For my generation, or at least for me, there is, in addition, the fact that I must always live with the question: How would I have acted if I had been older? Would I have taken the path of the conformists or would I have chafed against it? Would I have ended up in the clink; would I have gone to West Germany? Associated with this is having to constantly keep a lookout for how I answer this same question for myself in the new system. I still remain really very skeptical about having a career within an institution or getting involved in power structures. But I don’t conceive of myself as a wonderful, morally upright person; rather, I see this as a millstone around my neck …”

How do you feel about the ways in which the GDR is depicted in West Germany today? Do the different depictions create an overall picture that you can identify with?

“They don’t paint any sort of overall picture! But there are always new attempts to amalgamate the different pictures to give a unified view. Two themes predominate: one is the Big Brother state with the Stasi, and the other is a nostalgic, rather pretty picture of the GDR. Why are these two models the only ones available for what we experienced? You even catch yourself trying to fit into one or the other. But you keep coming up against experiences that don’t fit into either model — that intrigues me. So I find both models of only limited use, though interesting; and of course, both are grounded in reality.”

Let’s talk about the one type of history, or the one form of memory, the Big Brother state with the Stasi. What do you think about it?

“Up till now I haven’t done any concrete work on this topic. First I wanted to work in an area that doesn’t get as much attention as this. On the other hand, it’s inherently important for everything I do. You can’t think of the GDR without thinking of the Stasi, at least not the latter-day GDR. What would interest me with regard to the Stasi, or the party system of the SED, would be a more concrete investigation. For me, what matters is, for example, understanding why the citizens’ movement in the GDR was as limited as it was. Understanding concrete mechanisms interests me more than finding a point from which to try to judge the project of communism. That approach to viewing the GDR skips about 500 steps, in my opinion … But I also think that, in the interests of a current policy that is dedicated to seeking an alternative to the way we live now, it is essential to understand how structures like the Stasi function, and how they arise. That’s my objection to the current discussion about the Stasi. The objection applies as much to the right-wing view of the topic, which would like to build itself up on the basis of this kind of discussion, as to a left-wing disregard of the matter.”

So what about the other type of memory, sometimes called “Ostalgia”?

“A large part of what I find really disconcerting is the commercialization of longing. I have no use for this kind of purification of things in order to be able to offer them as products again, whether as comic show or as plastic Trabant. What interests me about Ostalgia is that an enormous sense of dissatisfaction and a strong feeling of not belonging to the state, such as there are in the East, point to a deplorable state of affairs today. What is also interesting, but more complicated, because it affects us personally too, is that the GDR today comes over as so naive or odd. It occurred to me at some point that in all the movies or other depictions of it, it can only be talked about in an ironic tone. They come with a gesture of apology for the fact that it was once taken seriously — ‘But today we know better, of course’. This shift interests me. Why is it not possible to relate the history in all its ambivalence? ‘That was my childhood’, or ‘I built my career in this business’, or ‘I got married here’— through everyday things like these, we were caught up in a system of which today we say, and indeed have to say, that it was truly rotten to the core. Somehow one participated in it, too. Enduring this ambivalence seems tremendously difficult, and I find it interesting to note that people use irony to make it look comical or small.”

To what extent is your own perception of the GDR today different from your perception at that time?

“To a very great extent. Certainly, I am just as critical of the system of that time, but …  let’s put it this way … now I see the GDR as the glasses through which I saw the world. And at that time, I didn’t see the glasses, because you aren’t aware of them when they’re on your nose. Today I again have glasses on, different ones, of course, but likewise ones that I can’t see. Only, now, at least, I know that they are there .” ≈