Through zines sneaked hand-to-hand and punk performances in private apartments, an underground art movement formed beyond the censors in East Germany. Fun on the Titanic: Underground Art and the East German State, an exhibition at Yale University Library’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, examines the final years of dissident culture in the Socialist regime.
Fun on the Titanic is curated from the Beinecke’s holdings on the East German samizdat, the name for this underground movement, that are part of the library’s larger collection focusing on the connections between art and protest in the postwar avant-garde of Europe.
“The East German material is special in many ways, especially the amount of time that went into hand-crafting them,” Kevin Repp, curator of modern European books and manuscripts at the Beinecke and organizer of the exhibition, told Hyperallergic. He noted that many of the artists were forced to use archaic technology from “the postwar stone age of photomechanical reproduction” for their work, which would often create surprising visual effects. “The constraints on the mode and means of production were extreme in the East German underground, and the creative dialogue between these constraints and the particular aesthetics that emerged from them is deeply fascinating,” he added.
As the brochure for the exhibition explains, the “line governing all manifestations of official culture was laid down at a meeting of Communist party functionaries in the small industrial city of Bitterfeld in the spring of 1959.” This “Bitterfeld Way” meant that only cultural work directly contributing to the East German Social Society was considered productive. The seriousness of this was defined by the expulsion of communist folk singer Wolf Biermann in 1976, who had criticized the government. What followed were both protests and persecution, and a new bleakness to artistic creation. As one samizdat artist stamp read in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bitterfield: “kunst ist wenn sie trotzdem entsteht,” or “it’s art if it happens in spite of all that.”
On March 25, filmmaker and artist Lutz Dammbeck will give a keynote lecture in conjunction with Fun on the Titanic. Dammbeck was one of the artists who organized the First Leipzig Autumn Salon in 1984, a major moment of the underground scene where through using partisan tactics, artists occupied a building for their own uncensored exhibition.
“Following the stories of the artists of the East German underground from the alternatives they constructed in the totalitarian state of the 1980s through the fall of the wall into the 21st century seems particularly worth doing at this point,” Repp explained, adding that their “lives, works, trajectories have much to tell us, and not only about the totalitarian past.”
The legacy of the tight-knit scene is complicated, as one of its leading members, Sascha Anderson, was in 1991 revealed to be a Stasi informant. If the regime was informed on all the group’s activities, was it really an underground movement at all? Yet the gritty DIY zines have a resonant spirit to them, their mix of art and writing often silkscreened or even, in the case of Henryk Gericke’s Caligo, burned onto cheap typing paper with an antiquated A4-Ruminator machine that often turned the work into smoke. Participants like Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller would have their future success rooted in the subversive scene, the reaction against the state spurring many artists, musicians, poets, and activists to collaborate on a free expression. It’s also a powerful demonstration of artists building their own networks and combining their resources behind the Iron Curtain, when contact with the state could mean censorship, surveillance, and even prosecution.
Fun on the Titanic: Underground Art and the East German State continues at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library (121 Wall Street, New Haven, Connecticut) through April 11. On March 25, filmmaker and artist Lutz Dammbeck gives a keynote lecture in conjunction with the exhibition.