Conversation between Beatrice E. Stammer and Anna Voswinckel on October 27, 2021, in the exhibition … oder kann das weg? Fallstudien zur Nachwende. Transcription: Anna-Lena Wenzel
Anna Voswinckel: Beatrice, you’re an independent curator, artist, and writer, and you were a member of the nGbK from 1979 through 1993. You curated numerous exhibitions at the nGbK: Unbeachtete Produktionsformen (1982), Zwischenspiele with 43 young artists from East Germany (1989), and a solo show by Via Lewandowsky (1990), an East German artist whose work you showed early on. In 1991 you curated Außerhalb von Mittendrin, whose catalog features in the current exhibition. With Bettina Knaup, you also curated the performance project re-act feminism#1/#2 – a performing archive for several years, and in 2009 you co-curated und jetzt – Künstlerinnen aus der DDR at Künstlerhaus Bethanien with Angelika Richter, who curated the Left Performance Histories show at the nGbK a few years back, focusing on practices of performance in East Germany and Eastern Europe. Let’s start with the nGbK. How did you end up here? What motivated you to work here?
Beatrice E. Stammer: I’d like to begin by saying something about my background. I grew up in the 1950s, so I’m a true West Berliner. I was active in the women’s movement, and in 1973 we founded Germany’s first women’s center. At this time, there was no Internet and no cheap travel; if one of us flew to America it was exorbitant. In spite of this, we did practice much of what US feminism brought us, including consciousness-raising groups, and we conducted self-examinations. There were many working groups, including a Red Aid group that supported women in prison. I was quite militant in all this, and I organized illegal trips to the Netherlands. We would spray paint the doors of rapists, or set off stink bombs in sexist films. So my path to art was through an anarchist women’s movement. It was quite spontaneous. I had worked two or three years teaching at a comprehensive school, but I left the education sector in 1980 because I found it so gruesome. Then I was approached by Jula Dech, who was at the nGbK at the time and who realized the first exhibition with women artists from Mexico, a very successful show. We wanted to do something on unacknowledged forms of production by women, on care work, on kitchens that aren’t designed for women, women’s economy, etc. We tried for a very long time to push this project through in the general assembly, I think it was the same for all women’s groups at the time. Then, over a short period, many women joined the society and voted for the project, otherwise we wouldn’t have got it approved. The situation was similar in 1977 for Künstlerinnen International, the first really major women’s project with very well-known artists. This was one of the most important feminist exhibitions at the nGbK, but it took two or three years of preparation to get the votes in the general assembly!
AV: Could you give a bit more background about the Unbeachtete Produktionsformen show?
BS: We wanted to do this exhibition to shed light on a different aspect of women’s work, because at the time there was no focus on unpaid care work, although the issue was addressed within the women’s movement by wages-for-housework groups. This project took place in the old Künstlerhaus Bethanien, in the nave of the church. There was a big program of accompanying events with performances and theater. We cooperated with the Berliner women’s group “Schwarze Schokolade” [Black Chocolate] who initiated the Berliner Frauensommer, including a “fog walk” with swords and sheets. At this time, as you can see, it was pure feminism.
AV: That’s interesting because many projects and exhibitions on care work have been realized at the nGbK since then, most recently Networks of Care. Under the PiS government in neighboring Poland, women are once more having to fight for the right to abortions. Feminist demands are continually being made visible. Today we want to speak mainly about the links between East and West Germany, about meetings between the women, what they had in common and what was different in terms of conditions and struggles against the patriarchy. How did you come to visit East Germany?
BS: In 1987, together with the then managing director Christiane Zieseke, I received an invitation from the Protestant Church to present the nGbK in East Berlin. I was part of RealismusStudio with Frank Wagner, we had just done the exhibition endart. Aus der Produktion 1980–86, and we thought it would be a good opportunity to become better acquainted with the art scene in East Berlin. At the meeting, Christoph Tannert gave a talk that blew me away because I knew absolutely nothing about East German art, or, more specifically, about the underground scene. At this time, I was working at the Staatliche Kunsthalle, and because our director was relatively friendly towards East Germany we hosted exhibitions by “state artists” like Willi Sitte or Volker Stelzmann – although the latter was not really sanctioned by the East German state. Christoph’s talk dealt with the GDR underground and its many aspects—from rock music, punk, and literature through to fashion shows and exhibitions. After we decided to do the project, it was also Christoph who advised me where to go. Among others, he told me to visit Künstlerinnengruppe Erfurt—which is how I met Gabriele Stötzer in 1987. Sadly, she wasn’t allowed to be part of Zwischenspiele because she wasn’t in the East German Association of Fine Artists (VBK). But I was able to include pictures of her work in the catalogue.
AV: How was the cooperation with the East German institutions?
BS: The exhibition came about after we contacted the VBK. There were two project groups, one at the nGbK and the other at the VBK. We would always meet in East Berlin. I did the exhibition with Christiane Zieseke. There were some disagreements, but we were able to push many things through. This was in 1988 and 1989, when the East German authorities were unable to behave in such a totally backward manner. They had to make concessions to the West. Among other things, there was an Inter-German Cultural Accord that allowed the West to make requests, and after several rounds of negotiations these were often granted. The West German institutions made sure they were able to push through certain things. But it was also clear that there would probably be an informer at these meetings, and that was indeed the case. In spite of the concessions, some East German artists were not granted an exit visa to attend the opening on October 20, 1989, including the “Auto-Perforation Artistes.” The West Berlin artists were really angry! We negotiated back and forth, in vain, and when the Berlin Wall fell two weeks later, the “Auto-Perforation Artistes” group was able to do its first performance in the West. That was very gratifying.
AV: But there was a dispute over your text?
BS: Yes, the text “Sie macht Ihr’s,” which I wrote for the catalogue from a feminist perspective, was censored by the East German authorities. Berlin’s Senator for Culture at the time, Ulrich Roloff-Momin, then intervened to ensure it would be allowed to be printed after all. Because things were already coming unstuck in East Germany by the summer of 1989, quite a few concessions were made.
AV: Apart from this, how was your feminist approach received?
BS: It was the usual male-dominated discussions about the quality of work by women. I had to fight for each artist. Of the forty-three participants, there were eleven women, which was not bad. If I hadn’t resisted, things would have been different. I was proud that we succeeded in getting the word “Künstlerinnen” [women artists] onto the cover of the catalog.
AV: Two years later, you realized the exhibition Außerhalb von Mittendrin.
BS: Yes, that was a very large-scale project with 200 women artists from East Germany under the auspices of the Inter-German Cultural Accord, which had been in planning since 1988. The exhibition was at a relatively unknown venue, the “Neues Kunstquartier im TIB” in Wedding, that no longer exists. We also set up a tent for events, which hosted theater, music, and readings, and there was a program of films at the Arsenal cinema. The project was supposed to feature only East German women artists. Then the Wall fell and I decided quite spontaneously to invite well-known feminists like Valie Export and Rosemarie Trockel, Renate Bertlmann and Ingeborg Strobl. So in the end I organized an exhibition with East and West German and Austrian feminist artists. Which led to some very controversial discussions. People asked me why I hadn’t included just East German artists, but I wanted to bring the artists out of the “GDR reserve” and give them a boost—I think it was quite good for their CVs.
AV: It was about foregrounding feminist art, rather than essentializing the East German women artists?
AV: What were working relationships like inside the project groups?
BS: Like all groups, we argued (laughs). The good thing about the nGbK is that although you hardly earn any money, because work on projects is more or less voluntary, you do become more professional. You learn to network, and you’re supported by an institution based on grassroots democracy where you can count on being backed up. I often organized exhibitions that crossed certain lines, but the nGbK said: we’ve got your back, go for it. That’s the nGbK. Of course, I was annoyed every time I got paid just 3000 deutschmarks for a project that took two and a half years to realize, but that wasn’t the point. It was about a community of like-minded people, it was about professionalization and communication, about the institution giving exposure and visibility to projects that weren’t mainstream. That was incredibly important for me, and I’m grateful for it.