A Short Description of the DDR

Text / Vincent Trasov

How to describe life in the German Democratic Republic? Stasi, Berlin wall, barbed wire, state run economy – or affordable rent, subsidized foods, adequate child care? Life was real socialism.

In the forty years existence of the DDR there was always a clash between state policy and the individual in daily life, fashion, and the arts. Freedom of expression was not guaranteed. Content and form were under the control of the one party, the German Socialist Unity Party, the SED Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschland. It was an authoritarian state. There was censorship and surveillance. Despite restrictions and controls an underground subculture existed in the arts, religion and politics. There was much private initiative and creativity. Jürgen Schweinebraden founded the Wohn-und Alternativgalerie EP Galerie in East Berlin in 1974. He exhibited concept, performance, video and mail art from the west, until the gallery was closed in 1980 for illegal press and publicizing. His gallery was a model for similar galleries which sprang up in the DDR and formed the alternative art scene. One of the few forms of communication with the outside world was mail art. DDR mail artists took their chances, as the post was censored.

To survive as an artist one had to be a member of a visual arts, writer’s or musician’s union. For many artists existence depended on government grants and commissions. Nonconformity often meant career suicide and in some cases prison. There was always the danger of being denounced.

The official dogma was social realism. It was possible to deviate from this course, but it was seldom acknowledged or supported. As an artist following the party line you could exist and work relatively easily. Although there were periods of relaxed censorship there was always uncertainty and distrust.

There was a housing shortage. To find an apartment meant untold hassles with authorities, letters to leader Erich Honecker, endless searching in the want ads, dubious contracts, trade-offs and fraud. Even in 1989 at the end of the DDR more than a quarter of all older apartments only had plumbing in the stairwell or courtyard and were shared by multiple families. There were neither showers nor bathtubs. One washed at the kitchen sink. There were neither finances nor the political will to modernize older buildings. New levels of comfort and functionality were promised with the era of Plattenbau, cheap high rise apartments towards the end of the 1960s. 

Leisure, squeezed in between job and family responsibility and overcoming economic shortages, was spent in cultural activity. Books (censored), libraries and bookshops were plentiful. Quality classical concerts and opera were reasonably priced. By the 1960s everybody had television, after 1969 color. There was one state run television station and several radio stations. Children’s programs, like “Das Sandmännchen“ (“The Little Sandman”) were popular. This program exists on German television today. With the exception of areas in the country where there was no reception, DDR viewers also tuned  into West German television, mostly critical of the DDR. Officially it was not allowed to watch West German television, but everybody did. West German television played a major part in accelerating the revolution of 1989. It was like crowd strikes today. People would return from Monday night demonstrations and see that their solidarity protests were succeeding.

During weekends and holidays, people got out of the confinements of their apartments. Friday afternoons the family took off with packsack and supplies to the datscha (country bungalow).

They were passionate of the outdoors, including the Baltic Sea, where FDGB (worker’s union) lodgings were popular, but in short supply. Even on holiday, recreation was meant to be a socialist experience; e.g., the “Rote Ecken”, agitprop red squares everywhere to honor the workers’ movement.

Nudist camps and nude sunbathing (FKK Freie Körper Kultur) were popular. There were nudist camps along the entire Baltic coast and at most outdoor recreation centres.

Travel was restricted. Apart from not being allowed to travel in the West, even travel within the Iron Curtain was curtailed. Shortages of private lodgings made individual travel impossible. An exception was camping, but unfortunately a lack of campsites. Youth slept under the stars. 

East German design conformed to the planned economy. In the East and West it was praised and ridiculed. Objects were meant to last. Quality, functionalism and the minimum need for raw materials was standard. Simple form followed the scarcity of raw materials but also the pursuit of a new cultural identity. Many DDR products are timeless, the reason being their simplicity and ergonomic form. The 1960s was the zenith of DDR design. After that the economy switched to plastics, with the slogan “Chemicals provide food, quality of life and beauty”. Practical and low cost articles were mass produced. These new products were meant to free the country from expensive imports from the West. Advertising was discontinued after 1972, as production couldn’t keep up with demand. In the seventies more and more private businesses were expropriated, suppressing individual initiative. The planned economy was very inflexible and couldn’t respond fast enough to demand. The state decided peoples’ tastes. Quality suffered due to the motto “Mass production before quality”. More and more quality products were exported in exchange for much needed foreign currency. There weren’t enough quality products for the domestic market. Often there was a stark deviation of the design, due to factors like unavailability of colour, raw material or run down factories and machinery. Many staples like bread never changed price. A bun always cost 5 pfennig. Luxury items, like a nice shirt or tropical fruit, were sold in specialty stores, and were expensive. There was a waiting list for years for an auto, electronics, or telephone. One waited 12 years for a “Trabbi” car. A kilo of coffee cost 70 Mark. Restaurants and grocery stores were state run. Somehow a minimum existence was guaranteed.

The DDR was always short of materials. To offset this there was a vigorous program of recycling secondary materials. Under the SERO drop off program recycling was paid for and thus encouraged. There was a return on glass, paper, cardboard, as well as metal, textiles and plastics. The program was ahead of its time. Unfortunately it did not translate into protection of the environment. The environment was polluted.

By the late 1960s the idea of modern design and the radicalism of Bauhaus and inter war formalism were considered decadent and elitist. During the time of Erich Honecker’s leadership, 1971–1989, DDR vision had become kitch and bourgeois, albeit continuing lip service to the idea of a workers’ and farmers’ state. 

DDR was a patriarchal society. Officially homosexuality did not exist, although there were a few gay bars in East Berlin, “Burgfrieden” and “Likör”. Discussion about same sex was a taboo. Sexual minorities were persecuted. The protestant church played an important role in the history of the homosexual movement. The church, which was very active in the peace movement and was instrumental in supporting political opposition and self-help groups, opened its doors to queer groups and their activism. Under the protection of the church the state could not intervene. Persecution of dissidents (anders denken) led to much despair and high suicide rates.

DDR citizens voted in 1990 in the first free election to disband the country and join the Federal Republic of Germany, resulting in reunification October 3, 1990. The mid 1990s witnessed the civil rights movements of the former DDR fusing with the West German greens. The former activists did not play a role anymore. There is no conception today of what it meant to have lived as an opposition activist in the DDR. 

Image Bank & Morris/Trasov Archive

Founded in 1970 by Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov the Image Bank helped facilitate the exchange of ideas, images and information between artists through the use of the postal system. Image Bank compiled and printed address and image requests lists that were sent to participants through the mail creating an open ended decentralized method of networking. The possibilities inherent in this kind of activity are limited only by the imagination so it is not hard to draw parallels between the pioneering work of the Image Bank and the later development of e-mail and the internet. As the Image Bank acted as both a clearing house and depository Morris and Trasov realized the importance of creating an archive to document and preserve the material accumulated from their activities. The concept of an artist’s archive or artist’s museum accounting for the concerns of a lifetime exists, the most famous is Duchamp’s “Green Box”. Other important examples include Ray Johnson’s “New York Correspondence School”, Robert Filliou’s concept of an “Eternal Network”, Daniel Spoerri’s ideas as outlined in his “An Anecdoted Topography of Chance”, Claus Oldenburg’s “Mouse Museum” and General Idea’s proposals for “The Miss General Idea Pavilion”. In 1973 Morris and Trasov helped found and direct the Western Front Society, Vancouver’s first artist run centre. The Western Front remains to this day a centre dedicated to the production and presentation of new art activity. The contribution of Morris and Trasov to the Western Front’s events and visiting artist program, the directory issues of General Idea’s File Magazine, the “The Miss General Idea Beauty Pageant” as well as Trasov’s entry into the mayoralty race for the 1974 Vancouver civic election as Mr. Peanut are legend. All these activities have helped create the climate of ideas that have contributed to the recognition of Vancouver today as a major centre for contemporary art activity. Morris and Trasov left their duties at the Western Front in 1981 to accept a DAAD residency in Berlin. While there they pursued their interest in performance and video, participating in numerous events and exhibitions in Germany and around Europe throughout the decade and beyond. In 2019, a retrospective exhibition of the work of Image Bank was held at Kunst Werke in Berlin.

An invitation from the Banff Centre in 1990 to a residency dedicated to preserve and accession of the accumulation of material comprising the Image Bank legacy left in storage at the Western Front resulted in the creation of the Morris/Trasov Archive. Since 1993 the archive has been housed at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in University of British Columbia, thanks to the support of Scott Watson, the gallery’s director. Numerous research projects, exhibitions and publications have resulted, including “How Sad I Am Today” a major survey exhibition and publication of the art of Ray Johnson and the New York Correspondence School, “Hand of the Spirit, Documents from the Seventies from the Morris/Trasov Archive” and “Image Bank Colour Research” for the 1994 Sao Paulo Biennial. The archive as the lifelong project of Morris and Trasov has meant casting a large net. It is time to pull that net in and make the connections that will link all the items in it to each other.