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Reviewed by:
  • Parallel Public: Experimental Art in Late East Germany by Sara Blaylock
  • Jan Baetens
by Sara Blaylock. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., 2022. 328 pp., illus. Trade. ISBN: 978-0-26-204663-3.

Parallel Public is an important and truly thought-provoking contribution to the study of the art and life of the avant-garde in a non-Western and noncapitalist country, the former German Democratic Republic. The book should be read in tandem with Sarah E. James’s Paper Revolutions: An Invisible Avant-Garde (reviewed here in June 2022), even if this new publication has a totally different take on the GDR avant-garde. It foregrounds indeed another generation, that of the young artists coming to the fore in the 1980s, the first ones to be born “into” the communist system and aggressively opposed to it, which was not the case of the first GDA avant-gardists, while also living in a decade in which this system had started to dissolve and would eventually collapse. It also foregrounds forms of art that avoid the traditional genre and medium boundaries, namely performance and intermedia art. Finally, it looks very carefully at the key feature of GDR’s cultural life, the impact of an intrusive and massively present state control, yet not as something that is naively opposed to avant-garde but as a force that makes it possible. Blaylock’s approach is extremely innovative in this regard, for she includes fascinating close-readings of Stasi reports made by “unofficial collaborators,” all methodically spying on each other, not least in the avant-garde circles themselves, as well as endlessly sending detailed, yet not always very clear, reports to the ministry.

Sara Blaylock gives a brilliant, attractively illustrated, and very well-written overview of these avant-garde activities, highlighting the work of the most important artists in the various intermedia and performance scenes (with a very welcome emphasis on the work by female artists, reacting against the hypocrisies of the official gender equality policies) as well as the venues and structures, in Berlin as well as in other, even very small local centers, that enabled them to both create and display their work. It is the specific approach of the relationship between this multifaceted avant-garde production and the cultural, economic, political, bureaucratic, and ideological constraints that represents both the fundamental research hypothesis and the most stimulating innovation of the book.

The word “parallel” in the title designates a twofold reality, an internal and an external one. Firstly, it identifies the specific place of the avant-garde under scrutiny in the internal GDR context. This very special avant-garde could indeed only burgeon next to the highly idealizing and streamlining official socialist ideology. However, “next to” does not mean “in the shadow of ” or “unrelated to.” GDR’s social realism was not realist in the mimetic, Western sense of the word but an endeavor to instrumentalize idealized role models and representations to help citizens evolve into [End Page 109] socially responsible individuals, capable of building their own lives while at the same time eager to build with their fellow citizens a new socialist society. Art and culture played a vital role in this social engineering, as demonstrated by the many privileges given to artists, all well-paid members of the official artist associations, and the considerable financial and logistic means devoted to the construction and maintenance of a tight network of specialized venues and institutions, both for the artists and for their audiences (and we shouldn’t forget: all that in a society characterized by a crude lack of many elementary consumer and technological goods). Blaylock meticulously discloses the fact that avant-garde or alternative culture in the GDR is misunderstood if one reduces it to a kind of samizdat culture. Even if the GDR avant-garde became increasingly critical of the political system—it should be repeated that on this point, the analysis of this book is totally different from what Sarah E. James showed for the elder generations, more sympathetic to the GDR ideology, mainly due to their personal experiences under Nazism—it was anything except an underground...