2022 Book Prize Winner - Sara Blaylock

Parallel Public: Experimental Art in Late East Germany. (MIT Press)

Black and white image of person holding old video recorder.

How East German artists made their country's experimental art scene a form of (counter) public life.

Experimental artists in the final years of the German Democratic Republic did not practice their art in the shadows, on the margins, hiding away from the Stasi's prying eyes. In fact, as Sara Blaylock shows, many cultivated a critical influence over the very bureaucracies meant to keep them in line, undermining state authority through forthright rather than covert projects. In Parallel Public, Blaylock describes how some East German artists made their country's experimental art scene a form of (counter) public life, creating an alternative to the crumbling collective underpinnings of the state.

Blaylock examines the work of artists who used body-based practices—including performance, film, and photography—to create new vocabularies of representation, sharing their projects through independent networks of dissemination and display. From the collective films and fashion shows of Erfurt's Women Artists Group, which fused art with feminist political action, to Gino Hahnemann, the queer filmmaker and poet who set nudes alight in city parks, these creators were as bold in their ventures as they were indifferent to state power.

Parallel Public is the first work of its kind on experimental art in East Germany to be written in English. Blaylock draws on extensive interviews with artists, art historians, and organizers; artist-made publications; official reports from the Union of Fine Artists; and Stasi surveillance records. As she recounts the role culture played in the GDR's rapid decline, she reveals East German artists as dissenters and witnesses, citizens and agents, their work both antidote to and diagnosis of a weakening state (Description from MIT Press).

Q&A with Sara Blaylock

If your readers take away only one idea from your book, what would you want that idea to be?

Parallel Public examines experimental art from the final years of East Germany in relation to state power. In the book, I argue that these artists did not practice their art in the shadows, on the margins, hiding away from the eyes of authorities. Instead, the experimental artists of the late GDR were committed to working autonomously and without fear of recrimination from a government that had historically not been very generous with citizens who refused to conform. It is inspiring to read about their efforts, both on an individual and a cumulative level. We can see from this history that persistence, in this case a demand for artistic freedom, can lead to tangible change even in the most intransigent of contexts.

What got you interested in the topic of your book?

I happened to be in Berlin the summer before I began graduate school. I came across the exhibition catalogue Art of Two Germanys: Cold War Cultures and found my way to Paul Kaiser’s text on the experimental art of the GDR. I was immediately drawn to the improvisational qualities of performance art from the 1980s, particularly that created by a group called The Auto-Perforation Artists. I was interested in the resourcefulness of these artists, as well as the ways their body-based work pushed the limits of comfort, for both artist and audience. Because very little research had been done on the subject of East German art by people outside of Germany, I felt even more compelled to explore the history. I was not looking to be novel; rather, I connected the absence of scholarship in English on East Germany to a general lack of nuance when describing the Eastern Bloc’s Cold War cultural history, more generally.

For those interested in learning more about your topic, what should they turn to next (after having read your book, of course)?

I can recommend a number of recent books in English, as well as a few in German. The first two are actually companions to Parallel Public; all three of our books came out essentially in unison and with the same editor (Victoria Hindley) at the MIT Press: 

  • Briana J. Smith. Free Berlin: Art, Urban Politics, and Everyday Life (MIT Press, 2022)

  • Sarah James. Paper Revolutions: An Invisible Avant-Garde (MIT Press, 2022)

  • Seth Howes. Moving Images On the Margins: Experimental Film in Late Socialist East Germany (Camden House, 2019)

The “Former West” research project’s 2016 compendium is also a great place to begin thinking about the broader implications of this history. 

  • Maria Hlavajova and Simon Sheikh, eds. Former West: Art and the Contemporary After 1989 (BAK, 2016)

In German, the following were particularly useful to me:

  • Angelika Richter. Das Gesetz der Szene: Genderkritik, Performance Art und zweiteÖffentlichkeit in der späten DDR (transcript, 2019).

  • Claus Löser. Strategien der Verweigerung: Untersuchungenzumpolitisch-ästhetischenGestusunangepassterfilmischerArtikulationen in der Spätphase der DDR (DEFA-Stiftung, 2012).

  • Paul Kaiser & Claudia Petzold. Boheme und Diktatur in der DDR: Gruppen, Konflikte, Quartiere 1970-1989 (Fannei & Walz, 1997).

What work or idea or thinker influenced you the most in the writing of this book?

My doctoral studies coincided with the culmination of a multi-year and transnational research project called “Former West,” which examines the cultural, social, and economic impacts of the end of the Cold War on the western hemisphere. The approach of the scholars and artists involved inverted my understanding of the Cold War. I had always thought about the former East, in other words, the ways that the end of Communism had been a start to something in Central and Eastern Europe. In contrast to this, people like Susan Buck-Morss and Boris Groys (whose books Dreamworld and Catastrophe and The Total Art of Stalinism were both influential to me early on) propose that we need to look at the ways the end of global Communism has shifted culture, often in hazardous directions. That idea continues to fascinate me. It is something I ended up taking up in Parallel Public’s underlying argument that state support for the arts effectively supported experimentation and led to greater creative freedom. I do not applaud the East German government, which was often severe and malicious, but nevertheless am curious about how the social services––from education to childcare––made it possible for people to lead creative lives outside market competition.

Books answer questions, but they also raise new questions. What questions does your book raise?

I hope a main question my book raises is “Why has this history not been studied more?” and “How can I learn more about these artists?” and even “What inspiration can I draw from this history, specifically to be a more creative person?” I am inspired by what the GDR’s artists were able to accomplish independently and at the grassroots level. To this end, I hope the book inspires people to think about ways they can build alternatives to market-driven creativity. There are so many parallel histories in the US, for example (no doubt in Canada, as well); I hope these examples of artists creating opportunities to build community come to people’s minds as they read.

Golden leave surrounding the year 2022 as logo for the winner of the Book Prize