From the Desert

Image 1: 1980 or 1981: the back says ‘Beirut’ but I was told in Beirut in 2011, it is Saida. Standing, Tariq Ibrahim on the left looking at the camera and Horst Sturm on the right in conversation, and other participants of the photo course. Photo: Youssef Khotoub. Archive Horst Sturm, 2013.

Sitting in the train to Amsterdam, at this very moment, and re-reading Jean Genet’s sentence ‘Put all the images in language in a place of safety and make use of them, for they are in the desert, and it’s in the desert we must go and look for them.’* makes me think of the beginning of my research into the conditions of the photographic practice of the East German photographer Horst Sturm. For several decades until its dissolution in 1990, Sturm worked as a photographer for the East German press agency, which had been located in East Berlin just opposite the place where I live today. He is co-founder in 1965 of the SIGNUM group in the GDR, which consisted of seven professional photographers that aimed for a reportage photography as a counterpart to the protocol photography of the official press service of the GDR. This initiative should not be mixed up with anything called ‘dissident’ or ‘critical’ in relation to the ideology of the GDR’s state-socialist doctrine. To be sure, the East German press agency, in this case its photo section, had been a crucial executive instrument of the official forces of the real existing socialism; and everyone who had been employed by the agency had to be approved in his or her ideological ‘cleanness’ towards the state-doctrine. GDR was a small country. It was an artificial state – certainly each state is artificial – whose sovereignty had been recognized by the United Nations only in the early 1970s; it was a symptom of the Cold War bipolar politics and incapable to emancipate itself from the socialist-imperial paradigm of USSR until the collapse of the concept of socialist internationalism on global scale, around 1989. If the early years of Soviet Union had been build intellectually on the idea of ‘the factory of facts’ as Dziga Vertov reflected on the concept of productivism as a practice of realism through the means of image production, then the concept of realism did not exist in the GDR. Heiner Müller found a good wording for it, when he replied in a conversation with Harun Farocki: 

‘Here [GDR] realism doesn’t work at all, only stylization works, because East Germany is not photographable – a variation of Brecht’s remark that a photograph of the Krupp Works says nothing really about the Krupp Works. The actors here in the West are much better at Naturalism, at working with photographic texts, plays or films. And our [East German] actors are better in productions of classics, i.e., anything that entails a stylized removal from immediate realty.’ (1981/1990, My Emphasis).

Image 2: Horst Sturm pointing to his own portrait in AL MAJALLAH [the magazine], a magazine written in Arabic in the early 1980s (?), published by the German-Arabic Association in the GDR and League for Friendship between People of the GDR, publisher: Zeit im Bild [time in the image], Director: Günther Zumpe, Editor in Chief: Lena Smolny, Design: Reginald Becker. Archive Horst Sturm, Berlin, 2012. Photo: Armin Linke.


Being on the train and thinking about Genet’s sentence, makes me think that it must have been at the end of the 1990s, when I met Sturm the first time. He was still living in an incredibly spacious flat at Kollwitzplatz in Berlin Prenzlauer Berg. The flat archived a part of his photographic practice, which is the part that had not been useful in the eyes of the press agency’s interest. His flat also – if I remember correctly – had a small dark room, though since Sturm was employed by the press agency that had its own laboratories. By the end of the 1990s, I still was a performing musician immersed in electronic music, improvisation, and I was about to finish my MA-thesis on musique concrète aiming for a practice of what had been called in the visual artistic arena ‘institutional critique.’ However, I would have soon been convinced that to work with images and words complicate much better performance/exhibition practice, as a mass phenomenon, than the performance of sound (if one wants to consider the outcomes of the questioning practice as the project itself). Sturm’s flat was amazing, a kind of typical flat in East-Berlin made of a succession of large rooms, with beautiful views over the Kollwitzplatz, where one could take a walk of a few minutes if one would wish to measure the flat by walking through it once; and where one could imagine the informal side of social space that has been crucial for encounters between filmmakers, writers, actors to discuss the everyday constrains to live and work in the GDR. The Kollwitzplatz area is gentrified today, which made Sturm to move from there a few years ago. Back then, it had been the area where quite a few protagonists of the East German intelligentsia lived. But, Horst Sturm has not been an intellectual of this kind. He has been neither Helga Paris, Sybille Bergmann, Iris Gusner, nor Heiner Müller. 

For a few years, I have been travelling to Ramallah and Beirut with a small number of photographs of Sturm’s personal archive, which have not made it in the institutional archives of the East German press agency. It has profoundly formed my practice-based PhD research, from which this blog-entry now benefits as well. Re-reading Genet’s sentence makes me think, not so much to reason an introduction of an East German photographer here as another curatorial find whose works seems to call to be placed on public display, but rather how travelling with images from the Cold War period has the power to induce a re-thinking process of curatorial concerns through a geopolitical lens. This lens is exemplified through the production and distribution of images, within the conditions of the Cold War in this case amidst a socialist-adhered web of relations, for the sake to place the Palestinian Cause on public display. 

The above paragraph needs a short elaboration: During the 1980s, Horst Sturm travelled to Beirut and Tunis to conduct photo courses to work together with former freedom fighters (fedayeens) on the use of the photo camera as a possibility to expand the means of the Palestinian liberation movement. The continuation of the liberation struggle by other means, i.e., the production and distribution of images, had been at stake already since the late 1960s, but never as an explicit and persistent as the educational project in form of the series of photo course over a period of several years. The educational exchange took place under the aegis of Verband der Journalisten der DDR (VJD) [organization of journalists of GDR]. The VJD was a member of the International Organization of Journalist. The partnering bodies were the East German press agency ADN and the Palestinian press agency WAFA as the Information Unit of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.). It appears worth mentioning as well that Horst Sturm was a member of AFIAP (Federation Internationale de l' Art Photographique). One of the photo course’ participants is Youssef Khotoub. I do not know as much about him as I do about Horst Sturm. I only know that when he was about twelve years old, Khotoub was a freedom fighter, fedayeen, in the Palestinian Cause during the 1970s, which was then primarily headed by the militant organization Fatah and further movements like the PFLP that formed the P.L.O. Fedayeen is an Arab word and could be translated as ‘guerrilla’ or ‘those who sacrifice.’ 


Image 3: Film sleeve from the photo course in Beirut in 1980/81 with the name Yousef Qutob [Youssef Khotoub], shown by Khotoub himself in November 2011 at Palestinian press agency WAFA in Ramallah. On the computer screen on the back is a photo with Horst Sturm during the photo course in Tunisa, 1986. Photo: Armin Linke.


Considering the fact, that Horst Sturm has been the only East German delegate of the ADN press agency of the GDR to collaborate with the P.L.O., and further on, that the photographs as well as information about the photo courses are accessible only via him. Another course’ participant was Tariq Ibrahim, who recalls from the educational encounters in a conversation in Beirut in 2011: 

‘When Horst came here, we felt that he was one of us and we loved him. We never felt that he was our teacher. I think he was a well-known person in Germany but he was down to earth that we never felt we were his students. He never praised himself but I felt that he was an important person. […] During a month of training, we had intensive lessons not just in the lab! Even when we were eating!’ 

Irabhim’s description delineates an educational environment that actively tried to continue and improve an image practice by non-hierarchical structures, i.e., a mutual exchange between teacher and students as equal partners. We also hear from this description the importance of social structures, which supports my argument that this archived image practice must be discussed not only from its outcomes that could be placed on public display, but through its conditions of production that are difficult to capture in a single shot. In other words, the social (eating) and spatial (outside the lab) parameters are not simply anecdotes but break an image practice into various strands that form together rather a network of practice, then just photography in a narrow sense. 

Such an educational set-up differs deeply from institutionalized structures as it becomes apparent, for example, in the film The Black Star (1965, dir. by Joachim Hellwig), which reports about solidarity relations of the GDR with Ghana. In this film, the East-German Grace Arnold teaches Political Economy in upfront teaching in a classroom of the Kwame Nkruma Ideological Institute for ca. 100 students. Teacher and students were separated spatially from each other by a teacher’s lectern. The reason to conduct a class like certainly matters from the class’ size in comparison with the photo courses in Beirut, where we speak of ca. 15 participants per course. However, even though these two different settings are difficult to compare due to its different framework and content, it allows to argue that the photo courses in Beirut, and particularly also Sturm’s way of teaching, suspended institutional protocols of solidarity.

In conclusion, for now, I suggest to take the inquiry into the images from the Cold War period for delineating a new understanding of the space of exhibition-making: the exhibition is not only a measurable space consisting of walls, lightening system, display devices and so on, but I propose, first, to look at it in geopolitical terms that articulates a relation between ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’ as the archived image practice suggests, exemplified by the individually archived photographs of Horst Sturm. Such an approach insists to consider the troubling double-bind made of the social-collective importance of the archived practice (i.e., a micro-political potential) and official party protocols as well as the institutionalization of solidarity (i.e., a macro-political dimension). Second, in order to distance the work from defining the archival material as anthropological invention but through a geopolitical concern I deliberately speak of a network of practices. It links up with Allan Sekula’s request that ‘The archive has to be read from below, from a position of solidarity.’ (1987) In other words, my approach insists in an actualizing approach to an archived practice, i.e., the transfer from a historical moment into a contemporary frame, asking for a vocabulary that allows to problematize binary forces of a Cold War period in order to re-think a geopolitical dimension of solidarity, as a spatial potentiality in exhibition-making. Within these two layers, I locate a new spatiality of exhibition-making that embraces border crossing geopolitical exigencies.

With regard to the processing of images, including ‘all the images in language’ as Genet formulated, my proposal of a geopolitical spatiality in exhibition-making introduces an entangled relation between the archival and the exhibition itself. I found this concern to similar extent in Genet’s approach to writing, particularly in his book Un captif amoureux (1986), which re-articulates his journeys to the U.S. and, the Middle East in the 1970 as well as in the 1982 in support of the Black Panthers and, the Palestinians. Therefore, let us re-read Genet’s thought, on the top of the last proof of his manuscript Un captif amoureux, for the last time today: ‘Put all the images in language in a place of safety and make use of them, for they are in the desert, and it’s in the desert we must go and look for them.’ One needs to re-read this one sentence countless times in order to begin to find a travel route for this search. Throughout all the following postings, we will come back to images and words, which open up here into a marginal region that is not well populated by humans, without infrastructure for transport, dwelling, or electricity. But Genet takes us into this region, which instead is highly populated by images as well as words, as if the desert was both our archive and exhibition venue. Un captif amoureux is the result of Genet’s journeys from France to the Black Panthers in the U.S. in February 1970 and to Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, Tunis, and Beirut since 1970. The book is many things: it is a memoire, a travelogue, a history book of the Black Panther movement and the Palestinian revolution, a journal, both a love declaration and a political pamphlet in 430 pages, a writing in search of a loved one, a “writing in revolt” as Hadrien Laroche described it, but also a writing in struggle with the means of writing itself, which is a writing against itself, or, we may paraphrase it for our concerns: exhibiting against itself. Genet’s writing had been also an acoustic chamber for many of my thinking about the means of making public, informed by journeys from Berlin and London to Beirut, Saida, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Tunis for several years until the present.


Image 4: Youssef Khotoub explains the selection process of single photographs, WAFA agency in Ramallah in November 2011. He comments: ‘The beginning of the photo is talking about the aim of the photo. Here, the woman is working and interest in the work and behind her is another woman, they are working. It was the best factory in the PF in the west bank. The son of martyrs also was wearing clothes from this factory. No spaces around the picture. Mr. Horst chose the best photos and then it was printed big.’ (Khotoub, 2011) Photo: Armin Linke.


We can consider the space of the ‘desert’ as a suggestion that Genet gives us – ‘we’ who deal with images and words every day – to follow a series of activities in that geography: moving, going, searching, travelling, caring, and placing. Importantly moreover, Genet speaks of making use of what one is looking for, meaning, that the desert place does not simply store, administer and grade but invites us to do something with all that which might be sheltered there. With such a concern at hand we are in the middle of The Itinerant. It moves us into a paradox that occurs in the very moment, when we – on one side – exhibit an image, a sound, a voice, or a word in public, and when we – on the other side – at the same time inhibit a different image, sound, or word to be put on public display.

The train arrived in the Netherlands, more precisely in Arnhem, which is the location of the Dutch Art Institute. Now, I arrived in the hotel and still have to prepare a few things for teaching. I will begin to work with the students on a project that already exists as a  collaborative initiative. Considering the belief in transforming images and words without reproducing them, then certainly, the Itinerant continues to make us move …

* The French original reads: ‘Mettre à l’abri toutes les images du langage et se servir d’elles, car elles sont dans le desert, où aller les chercher.’ The English translation by Barbara Bray suggests reading ‘mettre l’abri’ as ‘place of safety.’ The French expression, however, tends more towards ‘shelter,’ which I prefer to take into account. This differentiation is relevant with regard to an overloaded use of the term ‘safety’ nowadays in security regulations after 9/11 and CCTV-operations in the public sphere. Therefore, considering Genet’s life-long resistance against normative structures, ‘shelter’ appears to be a more appropriate take on the French original.

Doreen Mende 2013