Creative Alternatives

Visual Artists and the Peaceful Revolution, October-December 1989

In September 1989, thousands of East Germans began to flee the GDR through the recently opened Hungarian border with Austria and occupied the West German embassies in Prague, Budapest, and Warsaw, and at the Permanent Mission of the FRG in the GDR in East Berlin, demanding asylum. This so-called “flight movement” set off a frenetic chain reaction within the GDR, as those unwilling to leave came together to find a “collective solution” to the GDR’s problems. 

New political opposition groups like the New Forum formed on an almost daily basis across the GDR in mid-September and early October. These groups became increasingly vocal and visible, offering many different and at times contradictory visions for reforming socialist society. The western media began to take greater notice, reporting regularly on the new groups and their frequent release of statements and resolutions. Many of these groups were founded by artists, musicians, and writers--but few visual artists took part.

Rather visual artists  sought change on a different level, i.e. within their professional association, reflecting a cynicism toward the ability to effect change at a higher level. Visual artists in East Berlin, as well as Erfurt, Dresden, Leipzig, and Karl-Marx-Stadt, were also embracing visual displays and actions as a unique form of “aesthetic opposition” to communicate their critiques of GDR society. This visual provocation reached its climax at the Permanente Kunstkonferenz in June 1989, but continued to appear in late summer at the Berlin young artist’ exhibition and at smaller shows at the Galerie Weisser Elefant.


Kurt Buchwald's "No Photography" symbol at the Nov 4 1989 mass demonstration at Alexanderplatz, East Berlin

Kurt Buchwald's "No Photography" symbol at the 4 November 1989 mass demonstration on Alexanderplatz.

No Photography! Alexanderplatz, November 4, 1989

Organized among local theater artists with secret support from the Neues Forum, the November 4th demonstration drew local artists as well as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from across the GDR, spectators from West Berlin and journalists. It was also broadcast live on GDR television—a decision made without consulting media officials—which electronically transported millions of other GDR citizens to the rally. 

 Among the crowds, demonstrators held banners bearing witty slogans and recriminations against the SED. Among the sea of banners, another mysterious image without accompanying text also popped out: a pictogram of a camera with a red diagonal cross running through it. It was Kurt Buchwald’s image from the Fotografieren Verboten action. Once again, the message was clear: no photography. But in the context of the November 4th demonstration, the signs turned the command “no photography” on those wielding the authority behind the cameras, namely the MfS. In the hands of demonstrators, the simple image now represented a condemnation of MfS surveillance and the prominent role of photography in the observation of GDR citizens and asserted a citizen’s right to anonymity.

Just five days later, on November 9th, Günther Schabowski held a press conference announcing a string of recent decisions aimed at cooling off the opposition and stabilizing the GDR. When asked when a new travel policy ending the need for permits or visas would go into effect, Schabowski notoriously stammered: sofort (immediately). Taking him at his word, East Berliners flocked to border crossings on foot, in cars, and on bicycles demanding border officials allow them to pass without a special visa. The officials soon relented, and the Berlin Wall was suddenly irrelevant.


Manfred Butzmann, Hasenfahne Fest at Wall

Manfred Butzmann's painted Wall segment, Potsdamer Platz, November 19, 1989.

Manfred Butzmann at the Wall, November 19th, 1989

By November 10, 1989, border guarders had already removed segments of the Wall to accommodate all the autos attempting to enter West Berlin from the east. That day, FRG Chancellor Helmut Kohl joined former Chancellor Willi Brandt and West Berlin’s Governing Mayor Walter Momper for a public celebration in front of the Rathaus Schoeneberg that quickly turned into its own form of public spectacle. The SED central committee also released a detailed list of planned reforms promising a renewal of socialist society to include artistic freedom and an end to state censorship of artistic production. But once again, the party’s attempts to assuage the people all came too late, and the SED continued to unravel in the weeks following the Wall’s opening. Meanwhile, East Germans poured into West Berlin, causing serious traffic jams, overcrowded trains, and frustrating the locals.

During this incredible and chaotic moment, East Berlin’s visual artists seized upon their sudden access to free expression and public spaces formerly off limits to them. As the late Piotr Piotrowski describes, “the embrace of the public space is extremely important in this context, since the access to public space was until recently strictly limited, controlled and for the most part completely unavailable to artists.” On November 19, Manfred Butzmann initiated the first painting action on the GDR side of the Wall. Butzmann hoped to transform the “work of inhumanity” into a “work against inhumanity... against intolerance, Nazism, and nationalism.” With permission from a border official, Butzmann painted a segment of the Wall along the border crossing at Potsdamer Platz opened for auto and foot traffic since November 12th. Butzmann painted the segment with rabbits and rabbit flags, and affixed one of his posters promoting bicycling.

Butzmann’s rabbit imagery came from the “rabbit festival” that he hosted every year for neighborhood children at a playground in Berlin-Pankow. On the Berlin Wall, the rabbit imagery carried another meaning—referencing the massive population of rabbits known to inhabit the no man’s land along the Wall. Butzmann’s mural honored the rabbit communities likely to be displaced by geo-political changes out of their control, while perhaps also reflecting on a similar threat to the human communities. 

A few days later, border guards whitewashed the mural. Berlin’s VBK Secretary Wolfram Seyfert requested the guards come up with an official-sounding explanation for their action, but otherwise supported the mural’s destruction. This treatment of Butzmann’s mural represents the GDR officials’ desperate attempt to regain authority over aesthetics and public space amid its rapid dissolution.


Kurt Buchwald at Wall, December 1989

Kurt Buchwald and Jörg Sperling declare "no photography" at Potsdamer Platz, December 1989.

No Photography! Potsdamer Platz, December 1989

By December 1989, areas along the Wall had already become a hot spot for tourists and souvenir vendors. Tourist busses frequently stopped at the new opening at Potsdamer Platz to allow riders to get a photo with the world’s most famous concrete wall. Potsdamer Platz had only recently reclaimed its status as a tourist site, though the crowds came for entirely different reasons than they had in Weimar Berlin. Formerly a center of modern urban life in Berlin, boasting the world’s first electric stop light, since 1961 it had become a no man’s land with a Wall running through it.

 On December 2, 1989, Kurt Buchwald appeared at Potsdamer Platz with  Jörg Sperling to stage a new version of Fotografieren Verboten. The duo installed a signpost near the Wall with the “no photography” symbol attached to the top and notified disappointed crowds spilling off tourist busses of their ban on photography. Wearing green jumpsuits and face masks and resembling guerilla fighters, Buchwald and Sperling also handed out fliers with the “photography forbidden” symbol to explain the situation. This area along the Wall had become a common habitat for a new species known in Berlin as “wall-peckers” –an entrepreneurial breed commonly found with chisel and hammer in hand, seeking to harvest chunks of the Wall for souvenirs or lucrative re-sale. The wall-peckers could be identified by their high-pitched and steady trill: “clink-clink-clink-clink clink," which can be heard in the background of the video to the left!


Visual Artists and the Peaceful Revolution, October-December 1989