2019 Book Prize Finalist - Seth Howes

Seth Howes. Moving Images on the Margins: Experimental Film in Late Socialist East Germany. (Camden House)
Seth Howes Moving Images on the Margins

Through extensive archival research, formal analyses of over a dozen films, and interpretation of their relation to their creators' work in other media, Seth Howes documents the rich allusiveness and intellectual probity of experimental filmmaking in East German socialism's final years. Individual chapters examine Lutz Dammbeck's incorporation of painting, dance, literature, and experimental film into a critique of the (mass-)mediation of experience; the Autoperforationsartisten's use of film to problematize the notion of the "performance document"; Greifswald-based artists' integration of film into mail-art projects that crossed political borders and boundaries between media; and Yana Milev's blending of film and installation art to theorize the organization and segmentation of urban spaces.

What's the one key idea or message you want readers to take from your book?
That rather than a top-down system of ideology-production, in which cadres were rewarded and from which dissidents either retreated or were expelled, the East German art world was in fact a very experimental, fractious, and curious place!
What got you interested in the topic of your book?
A photograph of the experimental filmmaker and artist Micha Brendel covered in dirt and engaged in some kind of performance, knives attached to his hands and wearing little but a leather mask. I can’t remember where I first saw it — maybe in Ronald Galenza and Heinz Havemeister’sWir wollen immer artig sein?—but it clashed so fundamentally with my mental image of the art and literature of East Germany as austere, committed, and cerebral, that I just had to know more: What was he doing? Who saw him like this? On what terms could something so shocking and excessive have been shown publicly in the GDR?

Books answer questions, but they also raise new questions. What questions does your book raise?
Behind all the historiographic and methodological minutiae, I think I am asking: where, in East German art, was the line—the one you couldn’t cross? Doing the research, I learned that there wasn’t only one line, simultaneously separating the permissible from the forbidden, the artistic from the political, the professional from the amateur, and the tasteful from the profane. Rather, there were many such lines, sometimes reinforcing one another and sometimes meeting at right angles. And where those lines ran, how they were drawn, and whether or not they stayed put, was always subject to re-negotiation, not only (or even primarily) by cultural politicians and other gatekeepers, but by individual artists and the collectives they formed. And as I try to show, experimental film was one tool, among many others, that artists and performers used to re-think what it meant to make and encounter art in late socialism.
What are you currently reading, in your field or just generally, and what do you like about it?
I absolutely loved Tom Fleischmann’s Communist Pigs, an environmental history of East Germany that starts deceptively small—with sus scrofa, the pigs themselves—but by the end of its account, has completely reshaped your thinking about East Germany’s organization of its industry and agriculture, devolution of regulatory responsibilities to local and regional authorities, relationship to the global economy, and ability to plan for the future. It’s difficult to say what I liked best: how engagingly it’s written, or how fundamental the questions it asks are...either way, it’s a must!

WCGS Book Prize 2019 Finalist