THE DAY THE DAM COLLAPSED
MICHELE FOSSI in conversation with RAINER GÖRSS
A FEW MONTHS BEFORE THE BERLIN WALL FELL, RAINER GÖRSS, A YOUNG G.D.R ARTIST, HAD ALREADY CROSSED THE BORDER WITH HIS ART AND EXPOSED IN THE WEST SECTOR OF THE CITY. UNABLE TO MAKE IT TO THE OTHER SIDE, HE ASKED AN ACCOMPLICE TO SMUGGLE SOME MOLDS CAST FROM UNDERNEATH HIS FINGERNAILS, IN ORDER TO MAKE THEM GROW ON A CANVAS—AN EXPEDIENT UTILISED TO PIGMENT THEM WHILE BEING PHYSICALLY ABSENT, AS WELL AS A PIONEERING EXAMPLE OF OUT-OF-NECESSITY ‘BIO-ART’ AND, AT THE SAME TIME, A CRITICISM TO THE CAPITALIST MANTRA OF NEVER-ENDING GROWTH. AFTER AN INITIAL EXPONENTIAL GROWTH, THE MOLD COLONIES REACH A PLATEAU AND, EVENTUALLY, DIE OUT WHEN THE LIMITED FOOD RESOURCES AVAILABLE ON THE CANVAS ARE FULLY CONSUMED—A MEMENTO FOR THE CURRENT STATE OF HUMANITY, WHICH IS SIMILARLY PROLIFERATING IN A CLOSED ENVIRONMENT, PLANET EARTH, THAT IS BEING INCREASINGLY STRIPPED OF ITS RESOURCES.
OVER THE LAST THIRTY YEARS HIS ART, RANGING FROM ABSTRACT PAINTING AND SCULPTURE TO PERFORMANCE, AND EXPOSED INTERNATIONALLY, FROM RUSSIA TO BRAZIL AND FROM ITALY TO THE U.S., HAS NEVER CEASED TO BE POLITICAL AND CRITICAL OF THE PREVAILING ECONOMIC PARADIGMS OF THE INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY. TOGETHER WITH ARTIST ANJA RUDOLPH, HE RUNS THE UNTERGRUND-U144 MUSEUM, AN INDEPENDENT PROJECT SPACE FOR ARTISTIC RESEARCH AND CRITIC OF ECONOMIC AND POWER STRUCTURES, LOCATED IN AN UNDERGROUND BASEMENT IN LINIENSTRASSE, IN BERLIN, WHERE HE COLLECTED THOUSANDS OF HISTORIC MEMORABILIA EXPOSED IN NINE THEMATIC AREAS, INCLUDING THE 1989 MOLD PAINTINGS.
DUST MET WITH RAINER GÖRSS ON THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL TO DISCUSS THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE END OF THE COLD WAR FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE CREATIVE MINDS OF THE EAST, AS WELL AS HIS OWN TAKE ON THE ROLE OF ART TODAY, AT A TIME WHEN THE CRISIS, OF BOTH THE CLIMATE AND THE CAPITALISTIC ECONOMIC MODEL, ARE RISING.
MICHELE FOSSI – The Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago today, on the 9th November 1989, bringing down with it the world in which you were born and in which you developed as an artist.
RAINER GÖRSS – It was like the collapse of a dam. Instead of gently flowing over, the water that had been accumulating over months and years suddenly made the whole structure collapse.
M.F. – One more drop of water and everything comes down. I guess this also explains why authoritarian power structures are sometimes so gratuitously brutal. They know that even a small-scaled protest can slip away from under their control and lead to their downfall.
R.G. – Indeed. Any protest can theoretically become the first point of crystallisation for a revolution. That’s why any information that could be dangerous in the Eastern bloc, back then, was meticulously suppressed.
M.F. – The G.D.R. was a repressive dictatorship. I imagine creatives had to pay attention not to be too direct in manifesting dissent through their art.
R.G. – Of course. A dictatorship is very attentive to everything that happens. We all knew we were being spied on. Dissent was more so a matter of attitude. One would use densely metaphorical language, double-meanings and allusions and the audience knew they had to read between the lines. The result was sometimes very delicate. Whenever words are carefully selected to convey a potentially dangerous, artistically wrapped critique, a certain ‘poetry of the protest’ emerges, something I no longer see today.
M.F. – It seems that you look back on this ‘lost poetry’ with a certain nostalgia.
R.G. – Yes. It was the creativity of soft tones. The fineness of allusion or undertones or reading between the lines is rare today because everyone is trying to be the loudest. It is difficult today to truly understand that indirect, often humorous, way of expressing dissent. Living in this free but noisy world has made us all deaf.
FROM A REPRESSIVE SOCIETY THAT HAS WORKED WITH REDUCED INFORMATION, THE SO-CALLED ‘STRATEGY OF SILENCE’, WE’VE TRANSITIONED TO A FORMALLY FREE ONE WHICH PURSUES THE SAME GOAL: THE SUPPRESSION OF RELEVANT, UNPLEASANT, POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS INFORMATION, VIA INFO INFLATION.
What we have today is nothing less than a sophisticated system of information suppression to allow for protests, while at the same time, ensuring through other means that their message has little to no effect or is quickly muffled by other voices. Of course, the latter, that we could call ‘strategy of absolute volume’, is still better than the former, the hard and repressive variant. That’s indisputable. But, in either case, one hears only vaguely what protesters want to tell us. What comes out instead is either a senseless cacophony or, at best, an extreme simplification.
M.F. – Did fashion also have an element of protest in the G.D.R.?
R.G. – There was an exciting fashion scene that managed to be creative despite the restrictions of being in a low-resource society. Female collectives like Allerleirauh and C.C.D. produced vanguardist clothes from leather scraps, and even black garden foil or shower curtains. Then they presented their creations in improvised fashion shows where punk bands used to perform. The shows were meant to be collective celebrations of creativity, which stood indirectly as an invitation to think independently. The same can be said of the G.D.R.’s vibrant performance scene. People used to create the most absurd costumes on their own, not too dissimilar from those that we sometimes see during the most high-end fashion shows. Such crazy costumes weren’t meant to be sold, though – they were merely provocations, visual representations of autonomy of thought.
Sometimes these performances were really aggressive and radical – in the underground scene of the G.D.R, we saw performers pour over themselves buckets of animal blood or even incorporate raw meat in their costumes, long before Lady Gaga ever did it.
M.F. – Do you think the ‘Wende’, the word Germans use to refer to the ‘turning point’ known as the fall of the G.D.R. — would have
happened even without the creatives’ protests?
R.G. – I think the culture and the arts contributed significantly to initiating the process. But, ultimately, the momentum that led to the ‘Wende’ lay in the failure and collapse of the communist economic system in the whole block.
M.F. – How did this generation of G.D.R. artists react to the change? What were the new urgent issues when the dictatorship they’d been positioning themselves against for years disappeared?
R.G. – For some, the Wende represented the absolute liberation of their art, especially for those who were relatively bourgeois-educated and found themselves at ease in the newly capitalist system. Other artists became quieter or changed jobs. Many realised that absolute freedom comes with its own set of problems. The artistic language changed significantly.
M.F. – The usual coded language wouldn’t work anymore.
R.G. – No. One could also choose to use this freedom to continue working politically, as I did, but a new phenomenon emerged to complicate things: the profession of ‘artist’ was massively inflated. Artists are now mass-produced. The number of artists attending today a single art class at a college here in Berlin is more or less equal to the overall total number of art students in the G.D.R. At that time, creativity was itself a form of protest. After the Wende, you had to use all of your creativity just to be heard at all.
M.F. – The photographer Ludwig Rauch told me recently that life in the G.D.R. had at least one advantage for creative people: one hardly had to work to survive. This means that the young creative people had more time for their art and more time to spend together with their comrades.
R.G. – From a basic needs ideology, like that of the Eastern bloc, we entered a high-end existential fear regime, which for sure created a new category of more strictly existential problems for the creative community of the G.D.R.
M.F. – What do you mean by ‘high-end existential fear regime’?
R.G. – In a capitalist society, you’re free to do and say what you want, but you’ll also need more financial resources to participate in the game. Rent, purchasing bread, butter, beer, regular clothes, etc. wasn’t a problem in the G.D.R. because the socialist state supplied all these basic existential needs. As a result, no one had to go to bed hungry or sleep on the street. As a creative, if you had no particular dreams, you were paradoxically able to move more freely, or at least to a certain extent. Then this radically new capitalist society arrived wherein you could endlessly rise high if you succeeded, but also fall infinitely low if you failed. No wonder the question of survival suddenly became an essential topic for artists – in contemporary societies, the fear of existence has become a powerful instrument to regulate and control the masses. If the workers weren’t afraid to survive, they wouldn’t be that easy to handle.
M.F. – And what are the main topics of artistic discourse in Berlin?
R.G. – Difficult to say. The Berlin art scene today is globalised and so all questions are present. For obvious generational reasons, the view on these questions, especially social questions, is a Western one. My generation – having being socialized in the East – inevitably has a different view on social issues than the present generation, if only because the concept of culture has changed.
M.F. – How so?
R.G. – It’s evolved from a society-focused view of culture into a highly individualised and increasingly splintered one. Subjective themes about minorities now play a much more central role than the basic, dialectical system criticisms that animated the cultural and artistic discourse during the G.D.R.
MINORITY ISSUES SUCH AS GENDER, FOR EXAMPLE, ARE TODAY TAKEN AS A SIGN OF CRITICISM OF SOCIETY AS A WHOLE. BUT THEY BASICALLY ARE, AND REMAIN, SUB-ASPECTS. WITH ALL RESPECT FOR THESE VITAL STRUGGLES, SOMETIMES I FIND THIS APPROACH DECORATIVE. SUCH FRAGMENTATION CAN LEAD TO A DISPERSION OF ENERGY AND POSES A PROBLEM. WE SHOULD INSTEAD FOCUS ON CHANGING THE SOCIO-ECONOMIC FOUNDATIONS OF SOCIETY; THEN WE WOULD SEE THAT, BY DOING SO, THE MINORITY ISSUES WOULD BE SIMULTANEOUSLY ANSWERED.
M.F. – What do you consider to be more substantial topics?
R.G. – The question of rent prices in a city like Berlin, for example. Or old-age poverty. In the year of the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus, one could also ask today what has become of the basic idea of the school founded by Walter Gropius; that of bringing culture and design into everyday life. And even if sometimes this old dream has partially come true, one shouldn’t forget that this has happened with enormous contrasts – part of the world is over-designed, while another has no water or electricity. Another huge problem we have today is the lack of social responsibility from the part of corporations that are hovering over a locality, which also explains why neo-nationalism is on the rise in this neo-liberal globalisation. The industrial society places itself in a dangerous position.
M.F. – And now ‘Fridays for Future’.
R.G. – Yes, now we have a problem – climate change – that affects us all. The Earth’s liveable ecosystem is in question. People realise that we’re all on the same boat.
M.F. – And there you see hope?
R.G. – Yes. There I see a hope that the world will finally question the socio-economic system as a whole. We’ll realise that the fragmentation of recent years is a luxury we can no longer afford. The question now is: how can an industrial society contribute to solving the planet’s problems? We have the technological and scientific tools to prevent the scariest scenarios from happening. The criticism of the Eastern system is by now well-digested – nobody wants to live in a hardened dictatorship. Now we need to look critically at the history of neoliberalism. Otherwise, terrible things will happen. When resources are scarce, residual resource dictatorships can arise. These are the power structures that emerge to secure the resources that have become scarce and owned by a small group of privileged individuals. Such as with water scarcity. I would add that topics of climate change and resource allocation are interconnected. You can’t talk about climate change without, at the same time, including the need to guarantee the basic existence of human beings.
M.F. – Will the basic needs ideology of the East be back in fashion?
R.G. – Probably in the highly automated future that awaits us, but coupled with modern capitalism. We need a high-end technological society that can grant us enormous acceleration in the many areas of knowledge we need to meet the ambitious goals ahead of us. At the same time, we need a tremendous deceleration, for example, following the way already indicated by the Slow Food or the Slow Fashion movements – by converting the economy into the production of long-lasting quality products and that use fewer resources.
M.F. – A simpler life. Which doesn’t necessarily mean a worse one.
R.G. – Quite the contrary
Published in DUST #16 “YOU AND I SOON WILL BE DUST”
Text by Michele Fossi