June 1989 "Thirty-One Day Permanent Art Conference" Galerie Weisser Elefant, East Berlin
The 31-Day Permanent Art Conference took place at the Galerie Weisser Elefant on Almstadt Strasse 11 near Alexanderplatz in East Berlin in June 1989. This experimental art series was an official supplement to the Berlin Regional Art Exhibition at the TV Tower gallery in Alexanderplatz. The festival featured actions, performances, installations, experimental theater, super-8 films, art historical lectures, and round table discussions with artists and art theorists. Plans for the festival began in 1988—before the VBK’s officially acceptance of action art. The local Berlin VBK and magistrate’s city cultural advisor commissioned none other than art theorist Christoph Tannert and his former Humboldt University classmate from the Department for Art History, Eugen Blume, to organize the program. The selection of Blume and Tannert and the provocative nature of the artists invited to present during the Permanent Art Conference is indicative of what many artists and art historians describe as the “schizophrenic” nature of cultural politics in the GDR capital.
Kurt Buchwald, Photography Forbidden
Kurt Buchwald kicked off the festival with his action, Photography Forbidden (Fotografieren Verboten) staged in Alexanderplatz on May 30, 1989. That day a black pictogram of a camera with a diagonal red cross running through it appeared on two major tourist sites in Alexanderplatz—on the Neptune fountain and the World Time Clock. The message was clear: no photography. Some passersby would scoff at the sign and dutifully obey, while others ran home to fetch their cameras and returned to snap photos in defiance of the signs. One West German tourist viewed the signs and exclaimed “Typical East!” Like the tourist, those encountering the signs assumed local party authorities were behind the new regulation.
During the action, Buchwald captured people’s responses to the signs—by taking photos of his own. In doing so, Buchwald was also violating the signs. As he photographed the scene, a nearby police officer pointed at the sign and informed Buchwald photography was forbidden there. When Buchwald refused to stop, the officer arrested him. At the police station, the officer learned the truth: the signs were part of an officially registered art action and the inaugural event in a month longperformance art festival with ties to the annual Berlin-wide art exhibition.
The Auto-Perforation Artists and Else Gabriel's Alias, auch genannt (Die Kunst der Fuge)
On June 17th, 1989, Else Gabriel presented a particularly stunning performance that would deeply impact many in the audience. Accompanied by Ulf Wrede on the piano, Gabriel read a text into a microphone while lying underneath the piano. As Wrede pounded the keys, she moved over to a bucket of blood and melted gummi bears on the floor, just a few feet from where the audience members sat (also on the floor). With her hair tied up and over her head to cover her face, Gabriel took a deep breath, and plunged her head into the bucket. Removing her head, she then groped her way over to a cascading mountain of bread dough resting nearby, and tore apart the dough, revealing a container full of flies hidden underneath the mass. She sat next to the dough as the flies poured out and began to buzz around Gabriel’s blood soaked head and the blood splattered tile floor.
As the gallerist Ralf Bartholomäus watched the blood drip down Gabriel’s neck and smelled the blood, so thick in the air you could taste it on your tongue, and thought to himself “now, anything is possible.” Though the possibility of the Wall opening a few months later was definitely not going through Bartholomäus’ mind that evening, he would later connect the June performances with the realization among the people that “anything was possible” on the streets of Plauen, Leipzig, Dresden, and East Berlin.
-The Permanent Art Conference and the Peaceful Revolution-
A video-recording panning the audience at the end of Else Gabriel's performance, Alias, auch genannt (Die Kunst der Fuge), reveals people spilling out onto the sidewalk, watching from the windows on the street and completely packing the available space in the gallery. They watched intently and silently, with their wide eyes trained on the grotesque scene before them. Children seated on the floor or on a parent’s lap hold their noses in response to the rank smell of the blood, and a few gags can even be heard breaking the silence from the crowd. Taking place on the 17th of June, the performance also fell on the anniversary of the popular uprising originating in East Berlin on June 17, 1953--the only major expression of political opposition in the GDR prior to the fall of 1989.
This scene reflects what an important role the Permanent Art Conference played in the growth of an independent public sphere and the political awakening of GDR citizens months before the masses gathered on the streets of East Berlin to demonstrate against the regime. As this video reveals, the Permanent Art Conference was well attended, with 4,542 visitors to the gallery in June. Audience members included local scenesters, curious cultural administrators like Berlin-VBK First Secretary Wolfram Seyfert, neighbors, and visitors to the more traditional exhibition at the TV tower gallery nearby. As the audiences gathered night after night—spilling onto the sidewalks outside the small gallery—the Permanent Art Conference subverted the party’s control over urban space and the public sphere in the GDR. The formation of large crowds in and outside the Galerie Weisser Elefant, night after night in June 1989, represents a significant moment of political awakening among those assembled, supporting Judith Butler's argument that "assembling is already a performative political enactment even if it is prior to, and apart from, any particular speech act."